Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution provides that “The trial of all crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury.” However, it has never been judicially determined that engaging in a plea bargaining process to avoid trial subverts the Constitution. To the contrary, there have been numerous court decisions, at the highest levels, that discuss and rule on plea bargains. The U.S. Supreme Court did not address the constitutionality of plea bargaining until well after it had become an integral part of the criminal justice system.
In United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570 (1968), the Court questioned the validity of the plea bargaining process if it burdened a defendant’s right to a jury trial. At issue in that case was a statute that imposed the death penalty only after a jury trial. Accordingly, to avoid the death penalty, defendants were waiving trials and eagerly pleading guilty to lesser charges. Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the majority, noted that the problem with the statute was not that it coerced guilty pleas but that it needlessly encouraged them.
Two years later, the Court actually defended plea bargaining in Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970), pointing out that the process actually benefited both sides of the adversary system. The Court noted that its earlier opinion in Jackson merely required that guilty pleas be intelligent and voluntary. The following year, in Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 260 (1971), the Court further justified the constitutionality of plea bargaining, referring to it as “an essential component of the administration of justice.” The Court added that ‘[as long as it is] properly administered, [plea bargaining] is to be encouraged.”