Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Should judges reject agreed to plea agreements?

We've discussed this issue many times on this blog. If two parties in the adversary system work out a deal, should the judge be able to reject it? (Along the same lines, should a judge be able to reject a civil settlement?) I think the answer is clearly no for reasons I've articulated before.

The issue has come up again, this time out of the district. This time some (alleged?) crooked judges agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a particular sentence agreed to by the prosecutor. The federal judge rejected the deal in this order, in part because of the "scandalous conduct" of the judges.

What say you, readers? Are you persuaded by the court's reasoning? Should judges be permitted to reject the deals made by the parties to the lawsuit?


Anonymous said...

The answer is simple and it is yes. It provides a layer of protection for the community. However, they should not be able to do it in the case of a plea followed by sentencing...too much uncertainty for a defendant. Despite the language in plea colloquies, we all know that we give advice to defendants that they rely on, but not legally. Not fair to defendants.

Rumpole said...

As much as I can't believe I am saying this, Judges should reject plea agreements, although rarely.
There was just a judge in the So Dist of NY who is famous for rejecting settlements who said in the NY Times that truth and openness are the hallmarks of a court system.

I agree.
Let's say my client robbed a bank and carried a gun and threatened the teller with the gun. And lets say I got a plea agreement to a robbery charge with the 924(c ) count dropped i exchange for the plea.
I believe the court would have every reason to make inquiry and if the government's explanation was not satisfactory the court should reject the plea.

The times I have seen Judges reject plea agreements are usually in public corruption cases, and for good reason. So while I think it should rarely been done, Judges should closely examine plea agreements and reject them on occasion.


Anonymous said...

Assuming arguendo that the answer to the question posed is "no": in a world where judges must uncritically defer to agreements between the executive branch and defense counsel, why wouldn't we simply take the next logical step and eliminate independent judicial oversight entirely, at least for criminal matters?

With respect to the tangential question of whether judges should be able to reject civil settlements: Congress and the courts have already determined the answer to be "yes," at least in some contexts. For example, judicial review of proposed settlements is mandatory in Fair Labor Standards Act cases, and FRCP 23(e) requires court approval for class action settlements.

Anonymous said...

In response to the commenter at 7:38, it is exactly this mistaken sentiment held by many people including many judges themselves that their role is to "protect the community". Simply put, no it's not. That being said I find that is more often the elected state court judges that hold this opinion. The protection of the community is to be carried out by the actions of either the U.S. or State Attorney's Offices. Both federal and state law are very explicit in that the decision whether to prosecute a particular case and to what extent, and to engage in plea bargaining is at the sole discretion of the prosecuting authority. If the prosecution and defense come to an agreement the judge should have absolutely no say in the matter.

David Oscar Markus said...

Rumpole, in your example, why should the parties have to explain the decision to drop the 924(c)? Couldn't the govt dismiss the indictment altogether and re-indict without the 924(c) charge. (Incidentally this question came up in the Louis Robles matter when the district judge didn't accept a plea to 2 conspiracy counts -- which capped the sentence at 10 years. In that case, why couldn't the government just dismiss the indictment and supercede with only those 2 counts?) If it was the government's absolute right to indict or not indict that count, why shouldn't it be able to drop the count as part of a negotiated plea. The judicial branch was intended to be a check on the state's power; judges aren't there to supervise the government to make sure they are being tough enough. So my position is that judges can go lower than what the government's asking for, not higher.

As to 8:32, I don't think it follows logically that I am arguing for getting rid of judicial oversight entirely because I take the position that judges shouldn't be able to reject negotiated pleas. In fact, I am a big proponent of judicial discretion, especially at sentencing -- so long as the parties are fighting about what the appropriate sentence is.

As for your point about class actions, I think that's a bit different because there isn't a true lawyer-client relationship in those cases so we want to make sure that the settlement is fair to everyone who might be affected.

Anonymous said...

The protection of the community refers to protection from crooked prosecutors who give away the farm to political defendants or to prosecutors who want too high a penalty. I have seen judges reject plea agreements only to sentence much lower than the government offer when sentencing comes around.

I believe the judges should be required at the time of a plea to either accept or reject the agreement to avoid the risk of getting nailed by some blood thirsty probation officer in a psi.

Anonymous said...

Do plea agreements not contain a paragraph reflecting said agreement is not binding on the court or the probation office, and that the sentence could be lower or higher than that which may be contained in said agreement? The court ought to reject an agreement if the parties fail to disclose certain mitigating/aggravating factors that a "blood sucking probation officer" may bring to the court's attention.

Anonymous said...

Why don't we just replace all judges with a big rubber stamp? Would that make everyone happy? Forget justice. Let the parties come up with plea agreements where facts are replaced by convenience.