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Patton v. United States

Trial By Jury And The Constitution

Patton's lawyer, Charles Nowlin, filed a brief to the Supreme Court citing cases in which the Court suggested a defendant was not entitled to waive the right to trial by jury. But in this case, the Court voted 4-3 to explicitly give defendants in federal criminal cases the power to waive their right to a trial by jury. Justice Sutherland noted that the issue was an important one, as lower courts had differed on the question and the Supreme Court had never directly ruled on it.

Sutherland began his decision by examining the constitutional rights to trial by jury, as contained in Article III Section 2 and the Sixth Amendment. Sutherland defined what constituted a trial by jury: a jury of 12 people, a judge with the power to instruct jurors on points of law and advise them on facts, and a unanimous verdict. These three components, Sutherland wrote, rested on common law principles that were beyond the reach of any legislative tampering. The elimination of any one of the three elements violated a defendant's constitutional rights.

Sutherland then came to the crux of the issue in Patton, as the Court saw it: was the right to trial by jury "a part of the frame of government" or just a "guarantee to the accused the right to such a trial"? After exploring several state and federal cases on the topic, Sutherland reached this conclusion:

The record of English and colonial jurisprudence antedating the Constitution will be searched in vain for evidence that trial by jury in criminal cases was regarded as part of the structure of government, as distinguished from a right or privilege of the accused. On the contrary, it uniformly was regarded as a valuable privilege bestowed upon the person accused of crime for the purpose of safeguarding him against the oppressive power of the king and the arbitrary or partial judgment of the court . . . Article III Section 2 . . . was meant to confer a right upon the accused which he may forego at his election. To deny his power to do is to convert a privilege into an imperative requirement.

Sutherland again referred to English Common Law, acknowledging that it might seem to contradict the power the Court just granted to a defendant to waive a trial by jury. Under common law, the accused was not permitted to waive that right "as generally he was not permitted to waive any right which was intended for his protection." But in earlier times, the accused did not have the other legal protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. These protections included the right of a defendant to testify on his own behalf, the right to an attorney, and the protection from cruel and unusual punishment. With those guarantees in place, it was fair to let a defendant waive the right to a trial by jury.

The Court did set some limits on the right to waive a trial by jury, or by a jury with fewer than 12 members. The defendant had to give "express and intelligent consent" to the waiver, and both the government's counsel and the judge had to agree as well. The presiding judge was obligated to use "sound and advised discretion" before granting the right to waive, "with caution increasing as the offenses dealt with increase in gravity."

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Patton v. United States - Significance, Trial By Jury And The Constitution