Fault Lines Debate: Judges Rejecting Pleas Is Proper & Legal, Whether We Like It Or Not
July 26, 2010 (Fault Lines) – Ed. Note: In light of Texas District Judge Kerry Neves order that he would no longer entertain plea bargains that involved deferred adjudication or probation in prosecutions involving law enforcement, unless the “victim” agreed, we charged Fault Lines contributors Chris Seaton and Josh Kendrick to debate the issue: Is it proper for a judge to categorically refuse to impose a lawful, agreed-upon sentence? This is Chris’ argument:
Working in the criminal justice system carries a certain level of moral ambiguity that confounds spectators outside the profession. When people not used to the trench lawyer’s daily grind hear of stories like Galveston County Texas Judge Kerry Neves’ staunch refusal to accept pleas where cops are “victims” unless the cop agrees, and the Defendant wraps the deal shut with a nice letter of apology, their first tendency is to scream, “That’s not fair!” While Judge Neve’s comments might be out of line and his specific acts improper, there’s nothing wrong with a judge categorically refusing to accept a lawful, agreed upon sentence. In fact, it’s a perfectly legal step in the contractual process that is a plea bargain.
A plea bargain is a contractual arrangement according to Texas case law. There’s three parts to this special form of contract: the guilty plea, consideration, and the approval of the court. The “consideration” is the defendant’s bargained-for sentence, approved by the State. The entire thing isn’t binding until the judge signs off on the plea, however, and judges enjoy “broad discretion” when it comes to accepting or rejecting an agreed-upon sentence. That discretion is broad enough to where a judge can accept a guilty plea on Friday, take the weekend to ponder the plea, then turn around on Monday and announce a rejection of the plea agreement.
How can a trial judge in Texas pull off such a feat? The Texas Code of Criminal procedure spells out as part and parcel of accepting a plea agreement that the judge is required to ask if a plea agreement exists, and if one is in play, that agreement isn’t binding on the court. Even if the judge doesn’t expressly spell that out when accepting a defendant’s plea of guilty, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held as long as the judge accepts the guilty plea and doesn’t immediately make a finding on the agreed-upon sentence, he or she can pull a judicial about-face without uttering the appropriate terminology when accepting a defendant’s plea.
Now that we’ve addressed the question of legality, the next step is determining the propriety of categorically refusing to accept a lawful, agreed upon sentence. In addressing this issue, it’s important to keep the definitions of the words “proper” and “categorical” in mind. For the sake of convenience, I’m using the linked versions from “The Free Dictionary.” Taking into account the case law and definitions, and applying it to Judge Neves’ new “local rule” announced via Facebook, it’s certainly proper for a judge to categorically refuse to accept a plea agreement in cases where a defendant is accused of assaulting a cop unless that cop agrees to the plea.
If Judge Neves chooses to hinge his acceptance of a plea by a defendant, who tosses a bottle of water at a cop’s head and yells an anti-cop statement in the process, on an “okay” from an alleged “victim” and a letter of apology, the law treats that as a condition subsequent to the contract that is a plea deal. It terminates the duty of the state and the defendant to abide by that particular contract and puts them in a position where they’re ready for trial. As long as the judge doesn’t force the defendant to enter a guilty plea, and instead sets the matter for trial, with the defendant formally entering a “not guilty” plea, Judge Neves is well within the framework of the law to set every matter involving an assault on cops for trial.
Applying that to the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, Judge Neves is actually adhering to the canon requiring the “Independence and Integrity of the Judiciary” and performing his duties in absolute compliance with the law. The fact this is an election year and he’s potentially pandering to a very dedicated voter base doesn’t change the fact that a jurist’s right to reject a plea deal is accepted in other states and affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. Judge Neves’ particular set of circumstances would call into question his ability to fairly adjudicate any case involving an assault on a law enforcement official, but that doesn’t change the legality or propriety of his decision. It just gives a defense attorney wonderful grounds for a Motion for Recusal.
Situations such as those found in Judge Neves’ courtroom aren’t the most optimal conditions for a defense attorney, defendant, or a prosecutor who wants to clear one more case off his workload. It’s certainly not a good idea for a judge to openly advocate a political opinion in a time of national tension between law enforcement and civilians. As unpopular or “improper” one may think actions like those Judge Neves’ took upon himself, or any other jurist choosing to side with those wearing a badge in an election year, it’s all perfectly within the bounds of the law. It may not be “fair,” but it’s the system with which we’re constrained to work.
REBUTTAL: On review of Josh’s remarks, I only offer the following response. Yes, a judge should strive for complete impartiality. In a perfect world, if a jurist saw two sides reach a deal that sought justice for an aggrieved party and achieved a function accomplished by sentencing, then to reach that degree of perfection where a judge only rules on whether a sentence is “legal” would be the highest function of our criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, we’re working with the best we have, which involves judges with biases and motives we might not be able to ascertain before taking a plea to a judge. Making this argument doesn’t mean I’m on the side of “right” or “fairness.” I’m only able to say with certainty that it’s “legal.”