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Minnesota Legislature

Consent to waive a jury trial

Published (2/20/2009)
By Mike Cook
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tate law permits a defendant to waive a jury trial with court approval. However, some prosecutors would like to have a say in the matter.

Sponsored by Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul), HF582 would do just that. Heard Feb. 12 by the House Public Safety Policy and Oversight Committee, it was held over for possible omnibus bill inclusion.

Supporters say the bill would prevent the few cases each year where a judge seems to indicate they favor the defendant’s position.

Lesch related the issue to the legislative process. If a sponsor knew a bill would be rejected by a committee, but that the chair supports the bill, the member would seek to bypass the committee and just have the chair push it through.

During pre-trial motions, Lesch said a judge can give a sense on their thoughts about the case by deciding what evidence will be allowed or motions could be granted. “When you have those answers, it allows you to deal with the case more effectively, and maybe you want to settle if the judge is going to exclude certain evidence I have.”

“There’s plenty of judge-shopping going on,” said Winona County Attorney Chuck MacLean. “Then all the defendant has to do is flip the switch, waive a jury trial. … The state should have a chance to weigh in.”

Not all attorneys see the need for change.

William Ward, chief public defender for the eight-county 10th Judicial District, said in some areas of the state race can be a factor in a jury trial, and many minorities believe a judge can look beyond skin color. “It’s about whether the client believes in the fairness of the process for which they’re faced.”

I still like the idea that if I’m a defendant, I have a choice, said Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Good Thunder), calling it “too big a risk to take with our system” for something that happens a few times.

A companion, SF210, sponsored by Sen. Linda Scheid (DFL-Brooklyn Park), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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