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Adversary System - The Traditional Meaning

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In Anglo-American jurisdictions the phrase evokes both the aspirations and the actual features of Anglo-American criminal justice. It is incorporated to some extent into American constitutional law through provisions dealing with assistance of counsel and due process of law.

The attributes of "adversariness" change according to context. When techniques of ascertaining facts and deciding legal issues are discussed, a central feature is seen as a confrontational style: prosecution and defense prepare and present their cases to the court, and a decision is reached on the basis of the two alternative versions of fact and law. In this variant, partisan advocates are an essential aspect of the system, with their partisanship supported by canons of legal ethics (Fuller, p. 32). There is some equivocation, however, in the case of the public prosecutor, who is recognized to have a public responsibility that imposes limits upon the allowable degree of partisanship.

When the position of the criminal defendant is at issue, the focus shifts. The mainstay of the adversary system resides in the privilege against self-incrimination (Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 7 (1964)), which implies high obstacles to conviction and an opposition to unbridled crime control. Any lowering of the evidentiary barriers erected to protect the defendant, such as the requirement of a unanimous jury verdict of guilt, is treated as a step away from the adversary ideal.

Adversary features are found not only in the contested trial but also in appellate proceedings, where arguments by the parties must ordinarily precede the decision of the appellate court. Even the pretrial phase of the criminal process is increasingly seen as displaying adversary characteristics. The privilege against self-incrimination, for example, now radiates into the earliest police inquiries, according protection to the suspect. The right to pretrial release and the hostility to preventive detention are also linked to the adversary system, particularly its emphasis on the presumption of innocence. On the other hand, the widespread practice of negotiations between the prosecution and the defense (plea bargaining) is usually treated as subverting adversariness. Where the defendant pleads guilty after such negotiations, the core of the adversary system, the contested trial, does not take place; moreover, the pressures used to encourage guilty pleas threaten the adversary principle that the defendant may not be forced to incriminate himself. At the same time, however, plea bargaining is quite "adversary" in the sense that it is dominated by the parties and their lawyers, rather than the court.

The adversary system has its distinctive source in liberal ideology. Consider, for example, the image so often used by lawyers of "balancing advantages" (or maintaining an "equality of arms") between the prosecution and the defense; such a goal makes sense only in light of liberal theories that treat the state interest as analogous to—and not superior to—private interests. The presumption of innocence, the requirement of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and related notions are also suffused with liberal values. Moreover, the passive attitude of the decision-maker has an affinity with the passive laissez-faire ideology.

It is this linkage to ideological currents that has produced two versions of the adversary system in its traditional meaning. In the "classical" variant, the ideal judge is propelled into action only to resolve disputes between the contending parties. The emergence of welfare-state liberalism has generated changes in this version of the idea; just as modern liberal governments intervene in the economy to correct failures of competitive markets, so, according to this view, an adversary judge should intervene in the trial to redress the competition of the parties. Whereas the classical variant celebrates the parties' dominance over the process, a later variant would curb this dominance (Fuller, p. 41). But there is disagreement over the extent to which the judge can intervene without negatively affecting the incentives of the prosecution and the defense for the zealous action required by the adversary system. Some see a solution to failures of party competition not in making the judge more active, but rather in replacing "ineffective" advocates by more capable ones.

It is plain that the adversary system in both its traditional senses is inextricably linked to legal ideology. It is praised in many quarters as a palladium of liberty and contrasted with an antipodal "inquisitorial" criminal process, that term serving to convey the worst features of continental European criminal justice prior to its reform in the wake of the French Revolution. Any departure from adversary features is said to imply a lapse into a system where searches are unbridled, the accused is detained without limits, his confession is coerced, counsel is denied him, and he is not accorded the benefit of doubt. This overdrawn polarization is reflected in such important judicial decisions as Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 460 (1966).

The adversary system is extolled not only because of the protection it accords the accused, but also because its competitive style of presenting evidence and argument is thought to produce a more accurate result than an "inquisitorial" alternative, where the judge monopolizes proof-taking. According to this view, the judge who conducts an apparently nonpartisan inquiry cannot truly keep an open mind and lacks sufficient incentives to do a proper job. The possibility of a tension between the goals of obtaining accurate results and maintaining high barriers to conviction is often denied. It is occasionally conceded, however, that such barriers, while they lessen the possibility of convicting an innocent person, also increase the possibility that the guilty may escape conviction. Hence, by keeping these barriers high, as mandated by the adversary system, the accuracy of outcomes in the total number of cases irrespective of the kind of error can well be decreased. Where this is recognized, proponents of the adversary system accord decisive weight to liberal values: it is better to let a larger number of the guilty go free than to convict a smaller number of innocent persons.

The traditional Anglo-American concept of the adversary system has often been criticized by lawyers from other legal cultures. It has been vigorously questioned whether the clash of two zealous partisans represents the best instrument of discovering the truth. Moreover, the ample opportunities for the defendant to escape conviction have been said to exist mainly for those able to retain high-powered counsel. Finally, the practical importance of the adversary system in America has been doubted in view of the fact that most criminal cases never reach the stage of a contested trial but are settled through negotiations between prosecution and defense in the course of plea bargaining.

The adversary system as traditionally understood has its domestic enemies as well. Early in the twentieth century an eminent American legal scholar attacked it as inspired by a "sporting theory of justice" that treats substantively correct outcomes as relatively unimportant (Pound, p. 404). It is testimony to the continuing vitality of the traditional concept, however, that most critics castigate the alleged excesses of the system but fail to formulate alternatives to it. Only occasionally is inspiration for fundamental change sought in the non-adversarial modern criminal justice systems of Western Europe (Weinreb, pp. 117–146; Schlesinger, pp. 382–385).

The traditional concept of the adversary system evokes both actual features of Anglo-American criminal process and its aspirations. Inevitably, therefore, it combines both descriptive and prescriptive elements and cannot be expected to achieve rigorous internal consistency and coherence. It is not so much analytically precise as it is hortatory and rhetorical, aimed at mobilizing consent and at winning points in legal argumentation.

Adversary System - A Model Of Conflict-solving Procedure [next]

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