“We should just put everything on the trial list. That’ll learn ’em” is an idea that every young, wide-eyed, idealistic criminal defense lawyer has when she is beginning the slow descent into disillusion. I first heard it when I was interviewing for a job in my third year of law school. I said it recently, out of frustration with the State’s adamant refusal to acknowledge the glaring holes in their case. It is a dangerous idea and so it surprised me to see it espoused in the editorial pages of the New York Times by someone who claims to be a civil rights lawyer (more on her later).
The idea, for the uninitiated, is simple enough: 90% of criminal cases resolve via plea bargain; innocent people end up in jail; the system is rigged. So let’s fight it with insurrection. Overload the system, the system crumbles, justice is served. No state is equipped to handle the volume of 100% of cases going to trial. There isn’t enough money in the world to make that happen.
It’s appealing, sure. But only in theory. And the greatest evil the theory seeks to fight – the rigged system – is the greatest reason this idea is dangerous if ever implemented:
“The truth is that government officials have deliberately engineered the system to assure that the jury trial system established by the Constitution is seldom used,” said Timothy Lynch, director of the criminal justice project at the libertarian Cato Institute. In other words: the system is rigged.
In the race to incarcerate, politicians champion stiff sentences for nearly all crimes, including harsh mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws; the result is a dramatic power shift, from judges to prosecutors.
The system is rigged alright. Rigged so badly that cases with almost no evidence are rarely dismissed, that people who do exercise their right to a trial often end up with significantly higher sentences as punishment for the impudence of exercising those rights, that juries are predisposed to convict because innocent people don’t get arrested.
An idea like this can only originate from the mouth of a non-practicing academic: one who operates only in theories and not in the harsh realities of being in the trenches.
When I brought this up recently, a colleague looked at me and said “which client are you willing to sacrifice and how many?” The answer is none. As Norm so appropriately puts it:
Only fools, the naive and bad propagandists look for “justice” in the criminal courts. Clarence Darrow nailed it a century ago: “There is no justice in or out of court.” All that exists are interests. A criminal defense lawyer who puts his sense of justice ahead of his client’s interest has no business appearing in court. None.
Because our clients are often guilty and more than that will be found guilty by juries. They will be sentenced more severely than if they’d taken a plea. That is reality. A reality that we, as lawyers, don’t have to live. In this pursuit of wreaking havoc on the system, thousands will end up in jail, their lives ruined, their families’ lives ruined. Our job, primarily, is to serve the interests of a client. There may be times when a client’s desires provide a forum to take a stand against the rigged system. But unless that happens, it is a disservice to suggest that we disregard the consequences of our holy struggle in pursuit of an elusive fix.
Only someone who hasn’t had to repeatedly stand by clients as they are led away to serve weeks, months and years would offer up those same clients as lambs to the slaughter. Only someone who purports to be a civil rights lawyer but uses the phrase “court-appointed lawyer” when “lawyer” would suffice would propose an idea to destabilize the system at the expense of real, living, breathing people without acknowledging the disastrous consequences.
[Update:] Upon further reflection, I should state that there is a valuable message in this approach: that we should not be afraid to try cases, to stand up to poor offers and to essentially hold the State to its burden. You try cases that are worth trying, that have a shot at success, that present little additional downside to the client. And there are cases that you must try: where the client wants it and where there’s no functional difference to the client between losing after trial and pleading guilty to whatever offer may be on the table. The common thread, obviously, is picking the one that benefits the client the most. Sadly, we are in the crisis management and mitigation business. Clients don’t come to us to uphold some lofty ideal; they come to us to stop the tide as best as possible. It would be malpractice and a disservice to require them to put aside their best interests because we need to make a point.
Do it when you’re arrested, not when you’re defending someone else’s liberty.
There are ways to fix the system, albeit slow and mostly ineffectual: talk to your legislators, educate the community, run for a seat on the highest court. This is not one of them.
My struggle is against the system that wishes to incarcerate them. I won’t join it in the name of a mirage.
[H/T: Bobby G.]