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Our Right to Trial by Jury Is Under Attack. Will SCOTUS Save Us?

The Constitution guarantees our right to a jury trial in “all criminal prosecutions.” Our commitment to this constitutional safeguard is tested when the government haughtily claims a trial isn’t necessary…

Earlier this week,  the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Lee v. United States.

The case, which concerns the right to counsel and the right to trial by jury, is a very interesting one.

In 1982, Jae Lee came to the United States from South Korea as a child. Now 48 years old, Lee has lived in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident for decades.  In 2009, he pled guilty to a drug crime after his lawyer assured him that he could not be deported as a result.

As it turned out, Lee received bad legal advice. His conviction made Lee subject to mandatory removal, meaning that after serving several years in prison, he would eventually be deported to South Korea and essentially banished from the U.S.

When Lee learned of this mistake, he asked the court to vacate his plea, arguing that his counsel’s assistance was ineffective and he only pled guilty because of the recommendation from his lawyer. 

He wants to take his case before a jury. The district court denied this motion because of the overwhelming evidence against Lee, ruling that his conviction at trial was so certain that his counsel’s bad advice didn’t actually harm him, particularly given the much longer prison sentence he would receive if convicted after trial.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed that a jury wasn’t needed to determine Lee’s guilt and that denying the “chance to throw a Hail Mary at trial is not prejudicial” and therefore doesn’t violate Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

Federal prosecutors say there’s no need for a trial because the evidence against Lee is strong, but our constitutional right to trial by jury doesn’t depend on the government’s assessment of its own case.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reasoned that that the only chance Lee had was acquittal by “jury nullification,” which is the doctrine that says a jury can return a “not guilty” verdict even after it has concluded that the person on trial violated the law. Why order a new trial based upon an idea so irrational and antiquated, the Court reasoned.

Well, for one thing, there’s nothing wrong with jury nullification. The Framers of our Constitution believed that jury nullification was part and parcel of what a jury trial was all about.

The Supreme Court itself has noted that the jury is supposed to be the “conscience of the community” and should check the government when necessary to protect individuals from injustice or oppression. The jury cannot perform that function if it is told that it must always apply the law mechanically, without regard to justice.

Lee is now pressing the matter at the Supreme Court, which heard his argument earlier this week.

The Cato Institute filed a brief in the case regarding the right to and rationality of defendants asking for a jury trial.

Jae Lee is facing prison time and banishment from the United States. Before that happens, Lee wants to have his day in court. The Constitution is supposed to guarantee his right to trial by jury. We will soon see whether the Supreme Court will come to the defense of that guarantee.

Learn more…

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