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Proposed Constitutional Amendment Would Allow Felony Bench Trials in North Carolina

In the November election, North Carolina voters will once again be given an opportunity to amend the North Carolina Constitution. The amendment at issue is whether those charges with a Felony in North Carolina should have the option to waive a jury trial and instead have a trial by judge, also known as a “bench trial.”

To help the citizenry understand both sides of this potential amendment and its potential effects, the North Carolina School of Government has put out a fantastic publication which provides everything one could need to know about the current law in North Carolina, the proposed amendment, as well as detailed arguments for and against the amendment, as well as studying other jurisdictions who have already implemented similar laws. This publication is available for free – here.

What follows is a summary of the arguments for and against this amendment.

The arguments in favor of this amendment and in favor of allowing the criminally accused to choose bench trials for felonies rather than a jury trial, are as follows – 1) the other 49 states as well as the federal criminal courts allow a defendant to choose a bench trial, 2) bench trials could potentially save the North Carolina court system both money and time through decreased time for selecting juries, giving breaks to jurors and not having to pay jurors, and 3) Judges might be better suited to decide certain complex cases as well as cases involving horrific crimes or unpopular defendants in which juries might not be able to get past the initial shock value.

The arguments against this amendment are as follows – 1) the amendment will have the effect of concentrating even more power in the hands of judges, 2) this could result in judges favoring certain defendants and lawyers, 3) this could increase the likelihood of lawyers attempted to “judge shop” when deciding when to try cases, 4) District Attorneys and/or Judges might end up trying to force defendants into bench trials or disfavor those defendants who refuse their right to a jury trial, and 5) the amendment will lead to reduced citizen participation in the judicial process.

In conclusion, there are good arguments both in favor of and against this amendment. As always, before you undertake your civic duty to vote, you should educate yourself on the issues and decide for yourself.

For more information, contact the Clifford Division of Clifford, Clendenin & O’hale.

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