State high court affirms jury trial rule

Louisiana’s top court has affirmed the legality of a 2010 amendment to the state constitution that says criminal defendants who wish to give up their right to a jury trial — and instead be tried by a judge — must do so at least 45 days prior to trial.

The state Supreme Court, by a 6-1 vote, made its pronouncement Tuesday in a Baton Rouge murder case. Timothy Bazile is charged with second-degree murder in the 2010 shooting death of his wife. The justices said Bazile waited too long in seeking to waive his right to a jury trial, and now he must be tried by a jury.

“This prevents a criminal defendant from waiving a jury trial, in favor of a judge only trial, at the last minute which can prejudice the state’s trial preparation plans,” Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said Wednesday in a prepared statement.

“This significant decision ... allows prosecutors and judges to run a more efficient and cost effective trial docket, which could result in thousands of saved dollars for local jurisdictions,” he added.

Bazile’s attorney, Jarvis Antwine, called the Supreme Court decision “a sad day for Louisiana.”

The high court reversed state District Judge Mike Erwin, who struck down the constitutional amendment in August.

“The 2010 amendments to the Louisiana Constitution imposed reasonable procedural regulations on a criminal defendant’s right to waive trial by jury,” Justice Marcus Clark wrote for the court. “The constitutional provision merely requires a defendant to exercise his right to waive an otherwise conditional right within a specific time frame.”

Clark noted that criminal defendants in Louisiana still have an unconditional right to waive a jury trial within the first 15 days following arraignment without obtaining the consent of either the prosecutor or the court. He also said a defendant only needs court approval to waive that right between 16 days from arraignment and 45 days before trial.

The jury waiver law does not apply to capital murder cases.

The Supreme Court said the central theme of Bazile’s argument and Erwin’s ruling is that a criminal defendant enjoys an absolute constitutional right to determine the manner in which his trial is conducted.

“There is no explicit right to a trial by judge under the federal constitution. Instead, the only right to a particular mode of trial explicitly secured for criminal defendants in the federal constitution is the right to trial by jury,” Clark wrote.

The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office and Caldwell’s office had argued to the high court that the constitutional amendment protects victims’ rights, increases judicial efficiency, curtails the necessity of summoning unnecessary persons to jury duty, and assists courts and prosecutors with regulating their dockets.

“We find there is a rational relationship between the provisions (of the constitutional amendment) and these legitimate state interests,” Clark stated.

The court’s lone dissenter, Jeff Hughes, wrote bench trials “are quicker and more economical and are less burdensome to court personnel and our citizens.” He asked, “What is the point in a law that tends to guide criminal defendants into jury trials?”