Setting Deadlines As a Case Management Strategy

There are those who, in a quest to speed up the disposition of criminal cases, set plea cut off dates. Rarely does anyone say in family court cases, “if you do not settle your case before the trial date I am going to deny your divorce and mandate you remain married to your spouse.”

Michael D. Cicchini has posted Under the Gun: Plea Bargains and the Arbitrary Deadline (93 Temple Law Review __ (2021 Forthcoming)) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Before a prosecutor and defendant may settle their criminal case by plea bargain, they must first obtain the trial judge’s approval. The judge is allowed to reject a plea bargain if, in the exercise of sound discretion, the judge finds it is not in the public interest. However, some judges will also reject plea bargains simply because the parties reached their agreement after the court’s arbitrary plea deadline expired. At first glance, setting a plea deadline appears to be a routine administrative matter of little significance. However, plea deadlines can implicate important constitutional principles and often have a tremendous negative impact on the parties.

Courts justify their imposition of plea deadlines under the theory of judicial economy. But in reality, arbitrary deadlines are highly inefficient and create several additional problems: they often lead to rushed, unjust plea bargains; they obstruct the defendant from entering his or her plea knowingly and intelligently; they are the antithesis of the case-by-case discretion the judge is obligated to exercise before rejecting a plea; and they violate the separation-of-powers doctrine, infringing upon the prosecutor’s discretion to resolve the state’s cases when and how the prosecutor deems appropriate.

In light of these and other problems, this Article advocates for simple legal reform: the abolition of arbitrary plea deadlines or, in the alternative, severe constraints on the trial judge’s power to impose them. But the legal system is often resistant to change. Therefore, this Article makes a more immediate and useful contribution: it provides a strategy for the parties to obtain the judge’s approval of their plea deal, even when that plea deal is reached after the court’s arbitrary deadline has expired.

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