The Supreme Court of the United States has not yet addressed whether
the United States Constitution is violated if a criminal defendant does not
have a lawyer-judge preside at his or her trial. The closest the Supreme Court
of the United States has come to deciding the issue was in North v. Russell, 427 U.S. 328, 96 S.Ct. 2709, 49 L.Ed.2d 534 (1976). In North the Supreme
Court of the United States determined that Kentucky procedures provided for
a trial de novo, which included the right to a trial by jury, before a lawyer-
judge; therefore, the Supreme Court found it unnecessary to decide whether
the proceeding before a lay officer, which resulted in a sentence of thirty days
in jail for driving under the influence, violated the constitutional rights of the
defendant. (See footnote 1)
Bedell, 194 W.Va. at 397-398, 460 S.E.2d at 643-644 (footnote added).
In his dissent to the majority opinion, Justice Neely expressed his belief that a criminal defendant appealing from a proceeding in magistrate court before a non-lawyer judge should be afforded a statutory right to a jury trial de novo on appeal to circuit court. Justice Neely noted that in North the U.S. Supreme Court tacitly affirmed the constitutionality of non-lawyer judges based upon the guarantee of a trial de novo on appeal before a lawyer/judge. Bedell, 194 W.Va. at 404, 460 S.E.2d at 650. Justice Neely also discussed the case of Ludwig v. Massachusetts, 427 U.S. 618, 96 S.Ct. 2781, 49 L.Ed.2d 732 (1976), which he described as,
decided just two days after the North decision, the Supreme Court again
partially relied on the existence of a trial de novo to uphold a state court
system when a defendant in a criminal case was initially tried without a jury before a nonlawyer judge, but had the right to obtain a trial de novo by jury on
appeal. Thus, in Ludwig the Supreme Court ruled that no due process
violation was found.
Id. Both North and Ludwig strongly imply that constitutional due process is not violated if a criminal defendant's trial is presided over by a non-lawyer judge as long as that defendant has an absolute right to a trial by jury before a lawyer-judge. Because in West Virginia a criminal defendant has no such right, constitutional due process is violated.
As originally envisioned, magistrate courts were supposed to use simple procedures where small claims civil and misdemeanor criminal cases could be heard without the necessity of legal counsel. However the authority and jurisdiction of magistrate courts have increased over the years. Non-lawyer magistrates are now charged with understanding intricate legal arguments made by lawyers and applying complex constitutional principles that persons with a law degree and years of experience may find challenging. Significantly, at stake in the application of these complex legal principles is a person's liberty for up to a year.
By holding that magistrates are now responsible for the proper application of Rule 16 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure, this Court continues the unwise trend of placing ever greater responsible on non-lawyer magistrates in the absence of the necessary check on their rulings in the form of a jury trial de novo before a lawyer judge. For this reason, I dissent to the majority opinion.