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Speedy Trial Cases Go Before State's Highest Court

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Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford and Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants listen during a hearing in Nov., 2016.
Angela Rowlings/AP
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180403_medwed_debrief_for_web.mp3

In the first week of every month between September and May, the state Supreme Judicial Court hears a number of oral arguments on cases that have made it to the highest levels of the state's criminal justice system. 

WGBH's Legal Analyst and Northeastern Law Professor Daniel Medwed joined Morning Edition to break down some of the cases on the docket this month.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: The highest court in the state, the Supreme Judicial Court — SJC — holds oral arguments in appellate cases during the first week of each month from September to May. Joining us to talk about some of the key arguments on the April docket is WGBH Legal Analyst and Northeastern University professor Daniel Medwed. Good morning, Daniel, welcome back.

Daniel Medwed: Good morning, Joe.

JM: First of all, what are the most significant criminal cases on the docket this time?

DM: Well, there are several. Most notably, the SJC is reviewing four so-called speedy trial cases. Criminal defendants enjoy a right, a constitutional right, to go to trial without undue delay. The idea is that the state has an interest in proceeding while the evidence is fresh and while memories are intact. Also, defendants have an interest in not hanging in limbo indefinitely. So to enforce this right, the state has implemented a rule of criminal procedure. It's called Rule 36, which mandates that you have to go to trial within one year of being formally arraigned on criminal charges.

JM: So it's a year. What happens if the case does not go to trial within one year?

DM: That's the big question, because a lot of cases don't go to trial within one year. What happens, at least often, or sometimes could happen, is that the cases are dismissed, the charges [are] dismissed, unless the prosecutors can show that some portion of that one-year calculation should be excluded for speedy trial purposes.

So on the one hand, Rule 36 specifies that certain events, like time spent hearing a motion, a pre-trial motion, or time spent conducting a mental health examination of a defendant whose competency is in doubt, that that time does not count for speedy trial purposes.

But on the other hand, Rule 36 also has this open-ended, amorphous provision, which says that time also doesn't count for speedy trial purposes, if it's due to the defendant's acquiescence in the delay. If the defendant's responsible for the delay, or benefited from the delay. And that provision is really at stake this week in the SJC — what does it mean for a defendant to acquiesce in a delay? Does a defendant have to object even if it's a groundless objection, even to mundane scheduling adjournments because the judge is on vacation? The consequences are pretty significant here because of how crowded and jam-packed our trial court dockets are, and a lot of cases come right up to the precipice of a speedy trial violation.

JM: We're talking with WGBH legal analyst Daniel Medwed about the major oral arguments on tap for the SJC coming up this month. That's clearly the big one, speedy trial cases, I'm assuming. Is there anything else worth noting? 

DM: Later this morning, there are a couple of cases dealing with ballot initiatives in Massachusetts. How two ballot questions get put on the November ballot? Under our Massachusetts constitution, a ballot initiative can only contain related topics, related questions, or questions that are mutually dependent. If there are too many disconnected questions in a ballot initiative it could cause voter confusion. Let's say there's a ballot question that wants to increase the cigarette tax, and also create a holiday celebrating public school teachers or maybe Morning Edition hosts, something like that. Those are very admirable goals in isolation, depending on your viewpoint, but when paired together it could cause some confusion.

So today's case deals with a patient rights initiative, where the proponents want to create limits on the number of patients that can be assigned to a nurse, and also impose certain hospital transparency obligations, in terms of disclosing staffing levels and financing and so on. The attorney general's office declined to certify the question for the ballot, in part, presumably, because there were so many different topics in there. So we have to stay tuned. It's right before the SJC today.

JM: You would think that the attorney general's office simply kicking back for another version might solve that, but this goes to the highest court?

DM: It goes to the highest court.

JM: Wow. That's something that could affect a lot of people come November.

DM: It could affect a lot of people. And these ballot questions, of course, come up every year.

JM: They sure do. In fact we've been talking about a couple of big ones again that will hit coming up at the end of this year. Is that why this is getting the attention, or will this be going to SJC either way?

DM: That's a great question. I think it would be going to the SJC anyway. But you're right, there are a whole host of very important and somewhat controversial ones, including the millionaire's tax issue. That also refers or relates to the same issue. How many different topics could be contained within a single ballot question? Must they be discreet? Interconnected? How diffuse could they be, in order to avoid voter confusion at the ballot box?

JM: This is why we bring them in every week. Daniel Medwed, WGBH legal analyst, Northeastern law professor. 

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