Trial by vote

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It says something about the current state General Assembly when an editorialist must attempt to discern the true intent behind even the most innocuous-seeming legislation.

That’s how it is with the statewide referendum on this year’s ballot moving for a change in the state constitution. Defendants in felony cases would be able to waive a trial by jury in favor of a ruling from the bench by a judge.

On its face it seems the law would do exactly as purported: streamline courtroom proceedings on a crowded judicial calendar.

But surely there’s got to be some ulterior motive. The last time this crew in Raleigh got the state constitution changed by voter referendum, it turned out to be illegal.

It’s possible that this change in the law could make it easier to put more people in jail. We are the only state in the country that does not have this provision, and our conviction rate, at 67 percent in 2012, was lower than the federal court’s conviction average of 93 percent that year.

But other states that have this option for defendants are all over the board. Florida came in at 59 percent. Texas was at 84 percent. New York was 72 percent. And in the District of Columbia, where the Department of Justice is responsible for prosecuting statutory felonies, defendants fared better against judges — who convicted just 62 percent of them — than juries, which found 75 percent of felony defendants guilty.

Lawyers we spoke to all say the same thing: The right to waive a trial by jury in favor of a bench ruling as an important weapon in a defense attorney’s arsenal. Some defendants — particularly those charged with rape and child molestation, terrorism or racially tinged crimes — prefer to be judged by an actual judge rather than a jury that can be more easily swayed by emotion or prejudice.

If the new law makes it harder to put people in jail, then we are definitely for it. And proponents also claim that it will streamline our court calendar by expediting some felony cases.

But like many other people in the electorate we are skittish about anything this General Assembly proposes. Between pursuing personal vendettas, undoing decades of progress and slicing our state up into gerrymandered districts, our lawmakers have got us so that we don’t even recognize a good referendum when we see it.