The last state constitutional amendment to appear on the North Carolina ballot provoked broad and bitter debate over same-sex marriage. The amendment against such unions passed, but it has since been ruled unconstitutional.
This year there’s another amendment involving the freedom to choose and judging, but it’s hardly controversial. The proposed amendment would allow a criminal defendant to waive his or her right to a jury trial and opt instead to have case decided by a judge. The waiver would require the consent of the judge and would not apply to capital trials.
The amendment would make a sensible and long overdue change that could reduce trial backlogs and save the financially strapped judicial system money. North Carolina is the only state in the nation that does not allow defendants to choose to have their cases heard by a judge.
This is a change that would put North Carolina in step with the rest of the nation. It may also lead to more informed verdicts when cases are complex and fairer decisions when the crime or the defendant is notorious.
Objections come from lawyers who think the change will vest too much power in judges and could lead to “judge shopping” by prominent lawyers who might have sway with certain judges. There are also concerns that defendants will feel pressure from the state to opt for a faster and less expensive trial by a judge, known as a “bench trial,” rather than insist on taking up a prosecutor’s time with a jury trial. Defendants may feel that making the trial simpler for the prosecutor and judge could result in more lenient treatment.
These concerns are legitimate, but the experience of 49 other states has not shown problems to occur on a scale or with a frequency that outweighs the benefits of giving defendants an option.
Certainly the General Assembly wasn’t worried about the change. Republican and Democratic lawmakers voted almost unanimously to put the amendment before voters. Only one legislator voted against it.
There shouldn’t be any significant misgivings among voters, either. This is a change that will improve the state constitution, enhance the operation of the state’s courts and, in many cases, sharpen the knowledge, discernment and impartiality with which verdicts are rendered.
Vote yes on the proposed amendment allowing nonjury felony trials.