THE LIMITED POWER OF TRIAL JUDGES
Trial judges in Georgia wield enormous power in their respective courtrooms. They have the power to take children from their parents, award millions of dollars to litigants, and put people in prison for life. However, the most important power that a trial judge has is the mandate to oversee the entire proceedings in a case. This means that the judge should function as a disinterested entity who applies the law and sometimes finds the facts in a case. United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts put it best when at his confirmation hearing, he said that the role of a judge should be like that of an umpire in baseball calling strikes and balls.
So, how much involvement can a judge have in the process of a criminal prosecution? If the prosecution takes place in Georgia, the answer is not very much.
Last month, The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a defendant (Elmer Pride) in Fulton County who had been serving a 20 year sentence on a guilty plea made in connection with allegations that he repeatedly stabbed his estranged wife in front of their young children because the trial judge became too involved in the case. The Court found that the trial judge improperly inserted herself in the defendant’s plea negotiations by saying that she wanted him tried so she could sentence him more harshly.
In this case, Pride’s attorney negotiated a deal with prosecutors under which Pride would serve 13 years in prison. However, the judge would not accept the deal, even when prosecutors explained they were trying to avoid having the children testify. The trial judge told the attorneys that the lowest plea agreement she could accept in good conscience was a prison term of 20 years.
Pride ended up entering a guilty plea to a variety of felony offenses under the judge’s terms and received a sentence of 20 years in prison. He later tried to rescind his plea which was denied by a superior court judge. The Georgia Supreme Court ended up hearing the matter and issued the ruling.
Justice Hunstein, who wrote for the majority, said that judicial participation in the plea negotiation process could not go so far as to invade a defendant’s constitutional rights. She said that due to the force and majesty of the judiciary, a judge’s participation in plea negotiations may skew the defendant’s decision making and render the plea involuntary. Justice Hunstein went on to say that the trial judge crossed the line in repeatedly stating she would impose a harsher sentence if Pride went to trial, noting the comments had led Pride to agree to terms far less favorable than originally negotiated with the district attorney’s office.
Quite frankly, I am pretty surprised that the Court reversed the conviction in this case. In reality, defendants who go to trial and are convicted typically serve more time than defendants who work out a plea deal in a case. There are many legal and legitimate reasons for this, but it is a pretty consistent rule in all of the counties where I practice. It seems that the main difference in this case is that the judge actually voiced her opinion about punishment before the trial or plea even took place. She also said that she felt like the state had a good case which is prejudging the guilt of the defendant.
A vast majority of the judges who I appear before do not come close to involving themselves in plea negotiations. I must say that sometimes I wish that they could. But, after this decision in Fulton County, you will see trial judges taking an even less active role in the workings of criminal cases.