Voters to decide on right to pick judge over jury

First Posted: 8/15/2014

ROCKINGHAM — Voters in Richmond County and throughout the state will decide this November whether defendants in superior court should be able to waive their right to a jury trial.

A proposed amendment to North Carolina’s state constitution slated for November’s ballot “would allow a person accused of a crime to choose to be tried by either a judge or a jury,” according to the official explanation, which will be provided to voters to help them understand it.

Anyone wishing to waive that right would have to either submit his or her intention in writing or state it aloud in court for the record. The trial judge would then have to consent.

If a defendant decides to go that route, then a judge would be the sole arbiter who determines his or her guilt.

The amendment excludes trials where the death penalty is on the table.

Sen. Gene McLaurin, D, Richmond, and Reps. Ken Goodman, D, Richmond and Garland Pierce, D, Scotland, all approved the amendment’s inclusion on the ballot.

District Attorney Reece Saunders said that jury trials for criminal cases are automatic in superior court but not available in district court. Only civil cases in district court can receive a jury, he said.

Article IV, Section 14 of the state constitution already allows for those in a civil case to waive the right to a jury trial.

Saunders, a former defense attorney, said he hasn’t had an opportunity to study the amendment, but doesn’t envision many defendants not wanting a jury trial.

“I just can’t imagine a person charged with a crime saying, ‘I don’t want a chance to convince one of 12 people to vote on whether or not to convict me,’” he said.

“On the other hand,” he added, “some of what I’ve read says it’s the defendant’s right.”

“If it passes,” he said, “it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

The wording of the explanation was approved by a committee consisting of N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and the General Assembly’s legislative services officer, George Hall.

Article II, Section 22-(2) of the state constitution states that all constitutional amendments have to pass three readings in each house of the General Assembly and be signed by the lead officers of each house. A proposed amendment is then put before “all qualified voters” to approve or deny.

“Proposed constitutional amendments rarely draw the big political advertising dollars or media attention that major elections involving candidates receive,” Marshall said in an Aug. 4 release. “So it is very important for voters to take a pause during the upcoming election season and to think about how they feel about this proposed amendment, before…they will see it on their ballots.”

In his 1852 essay on the subject, Massachusetts lawyer and abolitionist Lysander Spooner wrote that the object of a trial by jury, or trial by country, “is to guard against every species of oppression by the government.”

He noted that the recognition of the right dates back to the great charter of England, the Magna Carta.

Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675.