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Delegates give thumbs-down to restrictions on jury trials


ANNAPOLIS -- In a rare move, the House of Delegates yesterday shot down a constitutional amendment that would have restricted Marylanders' decades-old right to a trial by jury in some criminal cases.

The bill's supporters portrayed it as an attempt to unclog Maryland courts, while detractors claimed the measure would abolish a fundamental protection in the state constitution.

The detractors won after Del. Gilbert J. Genn, D-Montgomery, and others made impassioned pleas against the measure. "If we pass this, we've put our constitution up for sale," he said.

The bill, which failed on a 62-69 vote, was the legislature's first casualty in floor debate this year. Only 1 percent of the bills that survived committee votes last year died on the House and Senate floors.

The constitutional amendment would have allowed a prosecutor and a judge to deny a defendant a jury trial if they agreed to limit the sentence imposed to less than 90 days and the fine to less than $1,000.

The amendment would have required voters' approval to take effect.

Its sponsor, Del. John S. Arnick, said most defendants charged in District Court with minor crimes such as drunken driving do not really want a jury trial when they ask for one.

"They ask for a jury trial not because they want a trial, but because they want a delay," said Mr. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Those delays jam court dockets, cost money and interfere with more serious criminal cases, he said.

Mr. Genn, a fellow committee member, challenged his chairman on those points. Although its proponents say the amendment would save money, he said, fiscal analysts say its impact would be minimal. Nor would it save time, he said, since the number of jury trials is already decreasing.

And Mr. Genn called upon history: "For 200 years, it has been that everyone has a right to a [jury] trial because of the terrible consequences of incarceration."

Taking away that right would be the "ultimate" intrusion by government into an individual's rights, he said.

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