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Sanctity of the Jury Trial?

“I don’t believe my role is to replace the verdict of a jury with my own unless there are new facts or evidence of which a jury was unaware, or evidence that the trial was somehow unfair.” Those were the words of President Bush in his own autobiography (as quoted in the article, The Texas Clemency Memos) to describe his review of execution of prisoners in Texas.

Apparently, that view has changed. President Bush commuted the prison sentence of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby deciding that the judge’s sentence, made in accordance to federal mandatory sentencing guidelines (pushed through by Republicans who thought judges were being too lenient on criminals), was too harsh.  The conduct is ironic, because as recently as last month, Attorney General Gonzales and the administration were pushing Congress to enact legislation that would make it harder for judges sentencing criminals to depart from the sentencing guidelines that Bush is now ignoring.

This is but another example of the continuing usurpation of power of juries and trial court judges. As we’ve previously written (here, here and here), that problem is most evident at the Texas Supreme Court, where big businesses and insurance companies prevailed in 84% of the cases during the 2005-2006 term and where the justices upheld defendants’ claims to reverse jury awards 81% of the time.

The irony in the unwillingness to overturn jury verdicts in criminal death penalty cases versus the willingness to overturn civil jury verdicts in favor of plaintiffs is the quality of representation. Often, criminal defendants are represented by appointed counsel who don’t have the time or resources to present a vigorous defense. On the other hand, civil defendants are usually represented by well-funded, qualified attorneys hired by big corporations or insurance companies. If one of these groups had a claim that the verdicts should be overturned because they were wrong or because they didn’t receive fair representation or a fair trial, it would be the criminal defendants.

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