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In 1980, the Court of Appeals of the Third Circuit ruled that the Fifth Amendment's due-process clause overrides the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial in complex civil cases. This opinion was in re Japanese Electronics Antitrust Litigation.

Now, could there ever be a criminal case so long and complex (e.g. a convoluted fraud case) that a jury, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, would be deemed incapable of fully comprehending and considering all the facts in it? Would it be possible for a future ruling to determine that a bench trial was required as due process overrides the right to a jury in a criminal case?

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    If so, it could only be the prosecution's right to due process that would override it - and I don't think the government has such a right. Jul 1 at 22:38
  • @NateEldredge Ah, I see. Aren't defendants entitled to due process? Well, what if a case was so complex that a rational factfinder wasn't possible, which surely would mean that a jury trial wouldn't be able to guarantee due process. Similar problems arise with an 'impartial jury in very high-profile cases.
    – Tolga
    Jul 1 at 23:55
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    The defendant is entitled to due process, sure. But that's a right and as such it can be waived - that's inherent in the definition of a right. The government can't use a person's own rights to force them to do something they don't want to do, and it especially can't use one of their rights to deny another one. Jul 2 at 0:00
  • Theoretically, if the defendant's right to due process can't be upheld with a jury trial, then they can't be tried at all and must be set free. I'm not aware of any case where a court has found such a situation, though. Jul 2 at 0:03
  • Thanks for answering. I was thinking more along the lines of that hypothetical scenario.
    – Tolga
    Jul 2 at 14:32
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In Japanese Electronics, both sides have rights that are equally protected by the Constitution. The court then had to decide which motion to grant. In a criminal prosecution, the prosecution and the defendant do not have equal rights: while the defendant has a Constitutional right to a jury trial, the prosecution has no right pertaining to jury versus bench trial. Therefore, there is no legal issue regarding the preservation of one party's rights over those of the other party. If the defendant feels that a case is too complex for a jury to handle, he has the option of a bench trial. If the prosecution feels that a case is too complex for a jury to handle, the prosecution has the obligation to make the case simple.

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Background

The decision in In re Japanese Electronics, 631 F.2d 1069 (3d Cir. 1980). Critically, the procedural posture of the case was that:

Fourteen of the defendants moved to strike the demands, arguing that the case is too large and complex for a jury. The district court denied their motion, concluding that the seventh amendment does not recognize the complexity of a lawsuit as a valid reason for denying a jury trial.

The court ultimately held in a 2-1 decision overruling interlocutory order (i.e. mid-case order) the district court allowing a jury trial, that if a case is sufficiently complex, that the due process rights of the defendants to a fair trial overcomes the mutual rights of the parties to a trial by jury in a civil case, and remanded the case to determine if this case was that complex.

This was on the theory that the right to a jury trial in common law lawsuits brought in law rather than equity was not absolute and had certain exceptions, and on the theory that in the event of a conflict between the 5th Amendment right to due process and a fair trial, and the 7th Amendment right to a civil jury trial, that the due process right was stronger.

I don't know how the case was resolved on remand, but I do not believe that this is a majority rule even though this appears to be the law in the 3rd Circuit in federal court (the 7th Amendment right to a jury trial does not apply in state court).

Analysis

could there ever be a criminal case so long and complex (e.g. a convoluted fraud case) that a jury, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, would be deemed incapable of fully comprehending and considering all the facts in it? Would it be possible for a future ruling to determine that a bench trial was required as due process overrides the right to a jury in a criminal case?

The Sixth Amendment states in the pertinent part that:

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury"

The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is definitely one that a criminal defendant can exercise, but the prosecution in a criminal prosecution does not have a corresponding federal constitutional right to a jury trial.

Likewise, the Fifth Amendment right to due process is a right of criminal defendants and not a right of the government prosecuting a case.

So, there are two possibilities. Either the criminal defendant insists upon a jury trial and the prosecution must try to overcome this constitutional right of the defendant, or the criminal defendant insists on a bench trial because the trial is too complex.

If a criminal defendant is insisting on a jury trial, there is no constitutional right of the prosecution to balance against the constitutional rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the defendant, to use to deny the defendant a jury trial. There is also no historical precedent for there being some kinds of criminal cases in which there is not a right to a jury trial as there was in civil cases at common law (where there were some exceptions to the general rule).

On the other hand, if the criminal defendant wanted to insist on a bench trial due to the complexity of the case, the defendant still have Fifth Amendment due process rights that the defendant can invoke and that the court must honor, while the prosecution has no due process or Fifth Amendment right to a jury trial to balance against that consideration. So, a defendant might be successful in having a very complex criminal case tried before a judge instead of a jury.

Also, it is almost impossible for a criminal trial to be as complex as the complex anti-trust case seeking treble damages in the In re Japanese Electronics case.

If a criminal defendant was facing a very complex case, rather than arguing for a bench trial, the criminal defendant could also seek other remedies to preserve a jury trial and reduce the complexity of the case.

If the criminal case was complex due to the large number of defendants involved, the likely remedy, if a criminal defendant requested it and insisted on a jury trial, would be for a court to order that the case be tried on a defendant by defendant (or small group of defendants by small group of defendants) basis.

Similarly, if a criminal defendant requested it in a highly complex case that is complex because it involves many different incidents, in order to make the case simple enough for a jury to manage, a court might also order the prosecution to limit the number of incidents addressed in each trial to simplify the case (since each incident would normally be a separate count in a criminal indictment that can be tried separately for double jeopardy purposes).

Finally, in federal court and in some states (but not all of them), there is also an institutional barrier to the prosecution bringing a too complex criminal case. This is that cases may only be commenced in that forum with a grand jury's indictment, which wouldn't be possible if a jury couldn't follow what the case involved.

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  • Thanks for your brilliant answer. Now, I have another question. Since grand juries are behind closed doors, what prevents a prosecutor from deliberately over-complicating a case to confuse the jurors so there's a higher chance they don't indict?
    – Tolga
    Jul 3 at 15:46
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    @Tolga The fact that if the prosecutor doesn't want an indictment the prosecutor doesn't have to present the case to a grand jury in the first place.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 6 at 20:46
  • What about if there's public pressure to prosecute (for example, something like the Black Lives Matter protests)? Aren't DAs elected as well?
    – Tolga
    Sep 4 at 22:29
  • @Tolga DAs have control of the process. DAs usually care about getting elected (in jurisdictions where they are elected, it isn't uniform), but often the fact that there is pressure to make a particular prosecution will be balanced by the fact that this isn't as salient an issue to many people who feel that way who may forget about it when it comes time to vote, while people who feel the other way often see it as a highly salient issue that they won't forget.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 5 at 0:04

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