Criminal Courts

VI. The Courts and the Adversary System

As stated at the beginning of this research paper, the primary function of law is perhaps its application in maintenance of the existing social order. The law and legal structure are charged with maintaining order; this task is accomplished through the adversary system that characterizes the U.S. courts. This adversary process places the prosecution against the defense in a search for the truth. Skolnick (1967), however, questions whether the current system is in fact adversarial; he believes that the U.S. system of criminal justice engenders a relationship between prosecution and defense that is more reciprocal than adversarial and is in actuality more one of cooperation. In other words, the prosecution, defense, and judge (the courtroom workgroup) have broader common interests to efficiently process the court’s caseload. Considering that roughly 90% of cases annually result in convictions through plea bargaining, it is hard not to believe that perhaps the system is more negotiative than adversarial.

A. Courtroom Workgroup

The notion of the courtroom workgroup is based upon the idea that the courtroom actors must work together to process cases efficiently. Eisenstein and Jacob (1977) believe that the courtroom workgroup has many shared goals, and thus, there are incentives for working together. Eisenstein, Fleming, and Nardulli (1988) believe that the daily procedures of the courtroom strain the relationship between defense attorneys and other members of the courtroom workgroup toward cooperation. The courtroom workgroup, then, consists of prosecutors, defense counsel, bailiffs, clerks, and even defendants whose interactions on a daily basis affect court outcomes.

Under this notion, the contextual characteristics of the court are important to criminal court outcomes. There have been two basic metaphors set forth for understanding the functioning of courts (Eisenstein et al., 1988). One is a legal metaphor where justice is the ultimate result; the other is a metaphor portraying the court as a community. The legal metaphor sees the court as symbolic, an institution that focuses on the rules and procedures set forth. The court as a community assumes that the courtroom actors are all interdependent and rely on each other. Here, the relationships of courtroom actors, technology, and even physical location will affect outcomes. Eisenstein et al. (1988) further argue that the courts are indeed more than just a metaphor for the law. They point out that criminal courts are complex political institutions, and as such, different courtroom communities will dispense different kinds of justice.

B. The Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” This is a fundamental right to criminal court proceedings based on the fact that most defendants are not learned in the law and therefore have very little knowledge of courtroom rules and procedures. The Supreme Court has made rulings purporting that a fair trial cannot be realized without the assistance of counsel. There have been many decisions affording expanded counsel rights to those accused of crimes. For instance, in Powell v. Alabama (1932), the court decided that indigent defendants who are charged with capital offenses must be afforded the assistance of counsel. In Johnson v. Zerbst (1938), the court ruled that assistance of counsel is mandatory for indigent defendants in federal criminal cases. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) expanded this requirement to defendants in state courts. Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) further stated that no person may be imprisoned, for any offense, unless represented by counsel. The court in Scott v. Illinois (1979), however, ruled that counsel need be provided only where the prosecution is seeking imprisonment as a punishment. These rulings and others like them have ensured that indigent defendants are given the provision of counsel at most critical stages in the criminal justice process.

C. Public Defenders versus Private Attorneys

Many have argued that because of the courtroom workgroup, public defenders do not have the best interests of their clients in mind (Blumberg, 1998; Sudnow, 1965). Mather (1974) contends that it is not that public defenders do not have their client’s best interests in mind but rather that they are more realistic about the possible outcomes for them. Neubauer (1974) supports this idea; his research shows that attorneys with good relationships to the courtroom workgroup were better able to predict court outcomes for their clients. Sudnow (1965), however, found that public defenders were more likely to assume that their clients were guilty, whereas those who hired a private attorney were deemed to be innocent and were therefore afforded a better defense.

Whether the type of attorney a defendant has affects case outcomes continues to be an issue because of criticisms that the criminal justice system processes are biased based on the socioeconomic status of the defendant (Nardulli, 1986). Discrimination of public defenders continues because they hold an ambiguous role in the criminal court system (Eisenstein & Jacob, 1977). They are advocates of individual rights and the representatives for indigent defendants. They are also, however, seen as double agents (Blumberg, 1998). In other words, they not only work for indigent defendants but also for the state. They are seen as being co-opted to the courtroom workgroup, and in order to ensure that cases flow through the system effectively and efficiently, they are likely to negotiate with prosecutors. Although most research finds that offense seriousness and prior criminal history are the most significant predictors of courtroom outcomes, extralegal factors still have an effect in some contexts. Eisenstein and Jacob say that the nature of charges, the strength of evidence, characteristics and background of the defendant, and characteristics regarding type of attorney and judge all influence criminal justice outcomes. These factors are all in some manner related to the framework of the courtroom workgroup.

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