Trial by Jury, a Hallowed American Right, Is Vanishing
The criminal trial ended more than two and a half years ago, but Judge Jesse M. Furman can still vividly recall the case. It stands out, not because of the defendant or the subject matter, but because of its rarity: In his four-plus years on the bench in Federal District Court in Manhattan, it was his only criminal jury trial.
He is far from alone.
Judge J. Paul Oetken, in half a decade on that bench, has had four criminal trials, including one that was repeated after a jury deadlocked. For Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who has handled some of the nation’s most important terrorism cases, it has been 18 months since his last criminal jury trial.
“It’s a loss,” Judge Kaplan said, “because when one thinks of the American system of justice, one thinks of justice being administered by juries of our peers. And to the extent that there’s a decline in criminal jury trials, that is happening less frequently.”
The national decline in trials, both criminal and civil, has been noted in law journal articles, bar association studies and judicial opinions. But recently, in the two federal courthouses in Manhattan and a third in White Plains (known collectively as the Southern District of New York), the vanishing of criminal jury trials has never seemed so pronounced.
The Southern District held only 50 criminal jury trials last year, the lowest since 2004, according to data provided by the court. The pace remains slow this year.
In 2005, records show, there were more than double the number of trials: 106. And decades ago, legal experts said, the numbers were much higher.
“It’s hugely disappointing,” said Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a 20-year veteran of the Manhattan federal bench. “A trial is the one place where the system really gets tested. Everything else is done behind closed doors.”
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Having just finished a jury trial in Marana Municipal Court and my client was not guilty, I was shocked to learn this was the first trial the court had had in years. It isn’t just federal criminal charges. It appears to be everywhere that people are not going to trial. Surely the budget constraints of state and local courts prevent the appointment of attorneys but you can always call me for a free consultation to review your case and determine the risks and benefits of a jury trial.
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