Monday, March 30, 2009

Parsing Judge Hughes' statement

parse - (v), etymology: Latin pars orationis part of speech; to examine in a minute way : analyze critically (having trouble parsing...explanations for dwindling market shares - R.S. Anson) intransitive verb

(From the Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary)

"It's better that [the prosecutors] try quality cases, rather than ones that shouldn't have been tried in the first place because that wastes jurors' time and costs money." -- Judge Jean Hughes, CCCL15, Houston Chronicle, March 28, 2009
I said in my post on the announcement of the Harris County District Attorney's whale hunt that I was troubled many many things I found in this quote from Judge Hughes. Now it's time to examine them.

What does Judge Hughes mean by better? 

Does she mean "more attractive, favorable or commendable?" And, if so, to whom? Does she mean "more advantageous or effective?" Again, if so, to whom? Or does she mean "improved in accuracy or performance?" If she means the latter, is she speaking in terms of the state?

Being that she then refers to the prosecutors in her quote, I would take that to mean she's defining better in terms of what benefits the prosecutor and/or the state. As a jurist, however, Judge Hughes is not supposed to take sides in any legal dispute. Her job is to hear the facts and apply the law. The outcome of any of these matters should not play a role in the decision-making process.

What does Judge Hughes mean by quality cases?

Quality refers to "a degree of excellence" or "a superiority in kind." How does one define what makes an excellent case? Is it the absence of fact or is the absence of question? Again, it depends on which side of aisle you sit and, once again, as Judge Hughes is supposed to maintain a neutral presence in the courtroom, this phrase is meaningless.

Some 90-95% of all criminal cases never go to trial. Some of these are dismissed because of an absence of fact and plea agreements are reached in others because of an absense of (remaining) question. What's left are cases with disputed facts and questions and cases in which the citizen accused has no incentive to enter into a plea agreement. 

What is Judge Hughes saying when she refers to cases that shouldn't have been tried in the first place... and how does she determine which cases fall into that category?

If the case shouldn't have been tried because the state did not have enough evidence to convince a jury to find the citizen accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then the prosecutors who brought the case violated their ethical obligation to seek justice. If she's referring to cases in which citizens accused of crimes have demanded their right to a trial despite overwhelming evidence against them, then she is denigrating the concept of reasonable doubt. 

A judge has the authority to determine if the former occurred upon the citizen accused's request of a directed verdict on the grounds that the state failed to prove each and every element of its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The only time a judge can rule on the latter is if the citizen accused opts for a trial before the judge.

Judge Hughes said trying these cases "wastes jurors' time and costs money." Exactly how?

If it's the result of the state taking cases to trial in which the prosecutors know they can't meet their burden of proof, I would agree with Judge Hughes. But I'm troubled if she's referring to cases in which a citizen accused exercises his right to trial by jury and loses. I would like for Judge Hughes to explain how it's a waste of time and money for one to exercise a right guaranteed by the Constitution. Men and women have died in this country and around the world for that right -- a day or two out of someone's schedule is hardly equivalent.

What does Judge Hughes consider big problems?

Big problems for whom? Merriam-Webster defines problem as "a source of perplexity, distress or vexation." 

Every criminal defense attorney who's practiced in Harris County knows that the court coordinators in the misdemeanor courts constantly push for cases to be plead out or set for trial and some judges go out of their way to discourage citizens from exercising their right to trial by jury. And what about the citizen accused? Now he's got to pay a trial fee and see his case dragged out for months before it's resolved.

I take Judge Hughes statement to mean that she isn't troubled by the notion of forcing one citizen accused of a crime in each court to spend more time and money to resolve a case that he or she has already decided to resolve short of trial.  After all, it's not her life, or the lives of the prosecutors in her court, being affected.


zealous said...

Had a suppression hearing with Judge Hughes today regarding a blood draw. At the beginning she says what's going on with these blood draws. The reporter says are you ready to go on the record? She says lets stay off for now and proceeds to ask the prosecutor what the results of the two blood draws were. I then asked how that is relevant to whether they should be suppressed and asked if that was bootstrapping. She was not pleased. At the end of the hearing in which I got the officer on record making many statements damaging his case if we went to trial (I was accused of conducting discovery in the hearing when I was challenging him on areas he had open the door to); she denied the motion asked my client to be seated in the gallery and told me that I was over my head and needed to discuss a plea with the DA. We turned it down and approached to schedule trial and she offered my client $200 fine no probation and time served when she had actually spent no time in jail as she was never actually taken into custody in the case. My client accepted the offer in spite of the surcharge down side. Prosecution had already discussed a motion to continue with out me being present as trial was scheduled to follow the suppression hearing (do you think I could have approached ex parte regarding a motion to continue?). If I was not "over my head" do you think I would have gotten this plea. It is always best to push as far as your client will go and help them go as far as they can.

Paul B. Kennedy said...

Thank you for your comment.

As to your question, I can't count the number of times I've heard a prosecutor say to a judge "That's the case we spoke about..."

I'm with you on pushing the state as far and as hard as you can. You never know what might shake out.