Controversy

Is the US court system fair?

WRITTEN BY
06/14/24
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Fact Box

  • The Preamble of the US Constitution uses the phrase ‘establish justice’ in a list of six responsibilities the new American government would have to promote citizens’ wellbeing. 
  • American federalism ensures that “power is shared between the federal government and the state governments,” as “both the federal government and each of the state governments have their own court systems.” 
  • Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, hear cases regarding the constitutionality of laws and to settle disputes between cases. State courts settle disputes pertaining to that state’s specific Constitution and laws. 
  • A September 2022 New Gallup poll found that 40% of Americans approved of the Supreme Court’s progress, while 58% disapproved. More respondents viewed the Court as too conservative rather than too liberal, with 38% believing it to be “about right.”

James (Yes)

Fairness and equality are enshrined in America’s founding and Constitution and apply to the US court system. As specified in the Fourteenth Amendment, American courts provide equal protection under the law. The judicial system was set up to uphold this idea and guarantee that everyone is treated equally and impartially. Several ways demonstrate how this mandate is applied today. For instance, a defendant maintains a right to counsel. Regardless of an individual's financial situation, every person has the right to legal representation, ensuring everyone has an equal chance to get legal advice and state their case in court.

Additionally, equality under the law is also exemplified by all citizens' right to jury trials. This promotes the principle that, rather than being decided by a single judge, significant judgments are determined by a representative cross-section of society. Furthermore, the US judicial system operates under the assumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. In order to prevent wrongful convictions or punishments, the burden of proof is put on the prosecution. The greater responsibility placed on the prosecution can also be seen in later stages, such as the appeals process. All defendants' right to an appeal helps to provide further insulation against unfairness and legal wrongdoing. 

Finally, at a broader level, the separation of powers in the US government structure helps to guarantee that the judiciary maintains its objectivity and impartiality and that other governmental branches do not unduly influence its judgments. Even knowing this, extreme cases also allow for pardons which create yet another means of exoneration for those presumed innocent. The court system is fair when all procedures and rights are upheld to 'establish justice' for all under the law—how America was founded to operate. 


Andrew (No)

Justice is supposed to be blind and impartial, but the reality is that American courts are influenced heavily by money. It's no secret that the wealthiest criminal enterprises, like the Trump organization, can afford to retain lawyers to delay and stall court proceedings for years, if not indefinitely. Money buys superstar lawyers and presents polished defendants, while poverty affords little more than public defenders and few options for making bail. In too many cases, public defenders are overwhelmed by heavy caseloads and cannot always coach their clients on how to appear in court.

The widely overused and extremely unfair practice of coercive plea bargaining is one of the major flaws in our court systems. Because jury trials are expensive, time-consuming, and risky for prosecutors, DAs have become so adept at using pleas that over 95% of criminal convictions come from plea bargains. The problem is that these are often arrived at through heavy-handed pressures such as pretrial detention, charge-stacking, and mandatory minimums to avoid a fair trial. This is such a large problem that the Supreme Court has stated, '[American] criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.'

Marginalized and politically disenfranchised groups often face the worst outcomes in our court system. The rare few defendants of color who make it to trial are often faced with a jury that contains few, if any, of their peers, and study after study has found that African Americans receive longer sentences for committing the same crimes as White Americans. Colloquial speech patterns and dress sense can also affect court outcomes, even though they have nothing to do with the case. The system must work to break away from these biases to enact fair justice for all.

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