Stealth Constitutional Amendment Could Bring Big Changes

This fall, North Carolina voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution. The proposed amendment would allow, for the first time, bench trials for felonies in superior court. Neither the media nor advocacy groups have paid much attention to the amendment, so almost no one seems to know that it is on the table. For that reason, I think of it as the stealth constitutional amendment. Despite the amendment’s low profile, allowing felony bench trials would be a major change.

The change could be for the better. For example, bench trials might save money, and some defendants — those with technical defenses, or those who are unpopular in the community — might prefer a judge to a jury. The 49 other states allow bench trials, so the amendment would bring us in line with the national norm.

But the change could also be for the worse. Once waiver is possible, defendants might be pressured to waive their right to a jury trial. Defendants with prominent and well-connected lawyers might get unfairly favorable treatment. Also, contrary to the majority rule in other states, the amendment doesn’t give the prosecution the right to insist on a jury trial if it believes that a bench trial would be inappropriate.

In an effort to draw some attention to the amendment and to provide some information about its possible benefits and costs, I worked with School of Government law clerk Komal Patel to prepare a report about it. The report is available here as a free PDF. In typical School of Government fashion, it doesn’t take a position on the amendment but it contains quite a bit of information about its potential impact and the practice in other jurisdictions. It’s written to be accessible to voters who aren’t very familiar with the criminal justice system, so please pass the link along to anyone who may be interested. As always, feedback and comments of all kinds are welcome.