The Constitution on Trial: Article III's Jury Trial Provision, Originalism, and the Problem of Motivated Reasoning

81 Pages Posted: 18 Apr 2012 Last revised: 29 Jun 2012

See all articles by Stephen A. Siegel

Stephen A. Siegel

DePaul University - College of Law

Date Written: April 18, 2012


Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution mandates that “[t]he trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury.” Yet in modern America, bench trials have become a well-accepted feature of the contemporary federal criminal docket. Some of these bench trials occur because defendants, consulting their best interests, waive their right to a jury trial. This seems to be a sensible exception to Article III’s peremptory command. It would be paternalistic not to allow defendants to waive a constitutional requirement presumably created for their protection. Yet, neither the English common law nor Founding-era practices permitted defendants prosecuted for serious criminal offenses the option of a bench trial. Federal bench trials violate both the Constitution’s text and its original understanding.

Nonetheless, in 1930, in Patton v. United States, a unanimous Supreme Court declared federal bench trials constitutionally permissible. Justice George Sutherland — who strongly believed that the sole goal of constitutional interpretation is to discern and effectuate the Constitution’s original meaning — wrote the Patton opinion. True to form, Sutherland’s Patton opinion maintained that defendants’ jury waivers and federal bench trials for serious offenses were consistent with Article III’s original understanding. However, Justice Sutherland got his history wrong. This Article joins the long list of books and articles questioning the Supreme Court’s use of history as a basis for its decisions. More importantly, by studying how evolving principles of constitutional policy transformed the interpretation of Article III, Section 2’s clear text through a mechanism known as “motivated reasoning,” this Article reveals how evolving principles of constitutional policy have become the basis for constitutional law even in the hands of dedicated originalists.

This Article is a study of the problem that motivated reasoning presents for the practice of originalist jurisprudence, and to that extent, it is an argument for the desirability of a forthright jurisprudence of “living constitutionalism.”

Keywords: constitutional law, jury trial, jury waiver, Justice Sutherland, motivated reasoning, legal history, constitutional history, jurisprudence

Suggested Citation

Siegel, Stephen A., The Constitution on Trial: Article III's Jury Trial Provision, Originalism, and the Problem of Motivated Reasoning (April 18, 2012). Santa Clara Law Review, Vol. 52, No. 2, 2012, DePaul Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-10, Available at SSRN:

Stephen A. Siegel (Contact Author)

DePaul University - College of Law ( email )

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