Friday, December 26, 2008

Oops, there goes another Constitutional right

The Seventh Amendment
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Meaning ... while twenty dollars doesn't go as far as it used to, the right to a trial by jury remains a mainstay of penal justice. In fact, in order to waive this right, a criminal defendant must be interviewed by a Judge with counsel present--called a plea colloquy--and sign a sworn affidavit. Cases that have arisen under this issue have dealt with whether plea terms have been contractually honored and whether a defendant was competence to understand the nature of the right being waived.

Jury duty on hold

Chloe Johnson
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
Superior courts in New Hampshire are suspending jury trials for a month this fiscal year as one of many cost saving measures. Another month off has been proposed, which could further delay civil cases for those seeking a right for a wrong.

Due to a state budget shortfall, Gov. John Lynch and the state Legislature requested cuts from government agencies and branches. The decision to suspend jury trails, under the direction of Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Lynn, is part of an effort to cut back $2.7 million in the judicial branch.

Since then, the branch has been asked to cut another $3 million, of which less than one-sixth was deemed feasible by Chief Justice John Broderick in a letter to the governor last month. That would include a second month of suspended jury trials for an estimated savings of $73,000. Jurors are paid $10 per half-day.

To come closer to the requested amount of cuts would require reductions in personnel. Personnel payroll accounts for 75 percent of the budget. Because of financial constraints, many positions have already been left vacant in all parts of the judicial branch. Broderick, in his letter, says the shortage of judges has consequences to the operation of the courts and delivery of justice. He warned against further reduction in staffing but posed two options for it.

“We have written this letter in the spirit of cooperation, trying to do what we reasonably can to help narrow the looming deficit. In fact, some of the items we have put on the table in this letter, we believe are not reasonable, but we have done so to squeeze every dollar we can from our FY 2009 budget,” Broderick wrote.

The right to a speedy trial means criminal cases are often scheduled before civil cases, said Ellen Shemitz, executive director of the New Hampshire Association for Justice. The suspension of jury trials means civil cases to mediate a wrong will be delayed further, she said. Shemitz said that inadequate staffing in the courts has already caused some cases to be rescheduled up to three times, with gaps of about six months in between. Civil cases can include product liability, public health concerns, employment discrimination, personal injuries or other situations in which a citizen alleges wrongful harm.

The financial crunch shines a spotlight on the problem of declining accessibility to justice, she said. By not investing in the courts, she added, the government is limiting essential services and affecting constitutional rights. “There are structural problems in our government,” Shemitz said. “We are chronically under-funded.”

Belknap County began the suspension in December, while most counties, including Rockingham, will suspend jury trails in February. The suspension won’t take place until April in Strafford County. Trials that were to go forward during those months will be rescheduled. The schedules remain unchanged in Sullivan and Coos counties, where jury trials occur every other month.

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