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EDITORIAL: Nevada Supreme Court beefs up right to jury trial

The Nevada Supreme Court last week struck a blow in favor of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Sadly, the state attorney general would have had the justices rule otherwise.

On Thursday, the state high court held unanimously that Nevadans accused of misdemeanor domestic violence have a right to a jury trial. The case was brought by Christopher Anderson, who argued he was denied his right in Las Vegas Municipal Court to a have his domestic battery case decided by his peers rather than a judge.

The Constitution holds that “the trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury.” The Sixth Amendment further dictates that “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled more than once that this protection applies only for criminal defendants accused of “serious” offenses, not those facing “petty” charges with minimal punishments.

In 2015, however, Nevada lawmakers imposed a statute requiring people convicted of domestic battery to give up their guns. Failure to comply is a felony carrying a prison term of up to six years.

Writing for the court, Justice Lidia Stiglich concluded that because Nevada defendants charged with misdemeanor domestic violence now face the possibility of losing their Second Amendment rights, it is indeed a “serious” offense. “Given that the Legislature has indicated that the offense of misdemeanor domestic battery is serious,” Justice Stiglich added, “it follows that one facing the charge is entitled to the right to a jury trial.”

The decision is well-reasoned and convincing, strengthening one of the core protections against state misconduct contained in the nation’s founding document.

“When you’re dealing with a constitutional right,” said John Watkins, a defense attorney involved in the case, “you don’t want that right taken away from someone without having a jury trial, where you have to convince the citizens that a conviction is in fact warranted.”

But Attorney General Aaron Ford had a different take, calling the decision “devastating” and adding, “Misdemeanor courts … are not equipped for jury trials, and this decision could have a widespread chilling effect on domestic violence victims coming forward.”

Mr. Ford would apparently prefer that the state be allowed to restrict the constitutional rights of Nevadans without consequence. That’s a recipe for tyranny. There’s no reason this decision should inhibit the prosecution of legitimate domestic violence cases. Ultimately, however, the right of defendants facing serious charges to be judged by a jury is a fundamental democratic defense against an oppressive state and must not be sacrificed in the name of prosecutorial convenience.

That Nevada’s top law enforcement official believes otherwise is not encouraging.

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