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Managing Judicial Discretion Against Judicial Efficiency: Trial Courts’ Group Pleas

Concerns over judicial efficiency impact procedural decisions as a matter of practice. In light of this, judges are rightfully afforded a great deal of discretion in procedure, fact-finding, and rulings. Judicial discretion is given wide latitude to provide flexibility in accommodating the unique circumstances encountered in the courtroom. As a check on discretion, appellate courts can review and potentially overturn a lower court’s procedural decisions.[1]


Today, courts commonly conduct simultaneous pleas as an effort to improve efficiency. By addressing multiple defendants with a single recitation of rights, for example, courts can reduce redundancy. This procedural practice has been called a group plea, a plea “en masse,” and even assembly-line justice.[2]


Specifically, a trial court judge may accommodate a large docket by bringing two, three, or four defendants before the bench. The judge may then advise the group of defendants of their constitutional rights.[3] Another judge may perform colloquy with multiple defendants, asking a question once and then soliciting individual answers. All the while, courts must ensure understanding, competency, and volition.[4] Depending on the proceeding and on the preferences of the court, defendants may plea individually or in unison. However, some have raised honest concerns in response these efforts.[5]


Over the past three decades, however, the number of incarcerated individuals has nearly quadrupled,[6] implying a proportionate increase in plea hearings. Criminal trial courts must work to absorb these cases into already heavy dockets through innovative measures including technology and procedural changes.[7] Some courts have already amended their procedural infrastructure and case management practices to better accommodate larger dockets.[8]


“Operation Streamline,” the result of a partnership between the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, mandates the prosecution of all illegal entrants into the United States.[9] According to former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, more than 30,000 individuals were prosecuted under this authority during a twelve-month period.[10] Said differently, thirty percent of those entering the federal prison system had been charged with immigration-related crimes.[11] In order to accommodate this increased pressure, certain jurisdictions accept the simultaneous pleas of as many as eighty defendants.[12]


Such defendants are subject to arguably “truncated procedures.”[13] In 2009, the Ninth Circuit held that a failure to personally address each defendant was a violations of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.[14] However, what exactly a personal address requires is far from clear. Judges are left to determine what constitutes a personal address in part because there is no clear and ubiquitous administrative structure in place. Attorneys and defendants may of course request an individualized colloquy to satisfy a personal address by the court.


In 2011, the Ninth Circuit found that a plea hearing involving multiple defendants did not  violate constitutional due process requirements.[15] Other jurisdictions have warned against the use of en masse pleas,[16] cautioning that while such proceedings are not per se illegal or invalid, they should not be a court’s preference.[17]


However, a defendant may prefer a group plea. Group pleas can reduce the number of hours spent in the courtroom, the number of hours billed by an attorney, and the number of hours spent away from work. One can also envision a recidivist, presumably familiar with the criminal justice system, who prefers truncated procedure given they competently understand what is at stake.


However, in light of the concerns surrounding group pleas, courts should exercise their discretion in favor of individualized pleas. Having previously expressed concerns over group pleas, higher courts may feel motivated to act more decisively should group pleas expand unchecked.[18] Similarly, a chief or administrative judge may prophylactically ban, limit, or otherwise constrict such procedures.[19] In order to retain more discretionary autonomy, judges should reserve the group plea procedure for limited situations, such as when defendants expressly prefer group procedure or when a group plea is reasonably necessary given the particular circumstances.


Similarly, a judge may find it appropriate to have defendants to appear together in the case of co-conspirators or necessary accomplices. Another judge may find it appropriate to ask parties to volunteer for group proceedings with the incentive of being processed more quickly. Under these scenarios, defendants are subject to group proceedings for demonstrative effect or by consent – rather than as the raw result of a heavy docket. An added benefit may be that defendants less frequently feel short-changed by the criminal justice system. If nothing else, review courts are less likely to find issues of due process.


The larger concern here is allowing courtrooms to be overburdened to a such a degree that they feel obligated to routinely impose summary group proceedings. Running contrary to the spirit of due process, these proceedings could feasibly end up on the wrong side of a constitutional challenge. A ban or strict limitation on this efficiency measure removes discretion from where it is needed most – in the hands of our trial judges.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

-Mitchell Hoke is a General Member on MJEAL. He can be reached at



[1] Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137, 175 (1803).


[2] Joanna Lydgate, Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline, University of California, Berkeley Law School, The Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity: Policy Brief 1, 1 (January 2010)


[3] United States v. Roblero-Solis, 588 F.3d 692, 694–95 (9thCir. 2009).


[4] See, Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242–43 (1969).


[5] Lydgate, supra note 2, at 12.


[6] Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People


[7] See, Chris Crawford, Emerging Technology Trends that Will Transform Courts, National Center for State Courts: Future Trends in State Courts 16, 22 (2011),; Hon. Herbert B. Dixon, Jr., The Evolution of a High-Technology Courtroom, National Center for State Courts: Future Trends in State Courts 26, 29–31 (2011),


[8] See, e.g., Ninth Judicial Circuit Administrative Order No. 2008-01-02, FL ST 9 J Cir 2008-01-02.


[9] American Civil Liberties Union: Washington Legislative Office, Reform U.S. Approach to Border Prosecutions, available at


[10] Secretary Janet Napolitano, before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: “Securing the Border: Progress at the Federal Level”, available at


[11] Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, (last visited February 12, 2016).


[12] Cf., Lydgate, supra note 2, at 14; B. Keller, Are mass guilty pleas copacetic? 9th Circuit weighs in yet again, Litigator Rex (Sep. 20, 2013),


[13] CHAPTER THREE POLICING IMMIGRANT COMMUNITIES, Development in the Law Policing, 128 Harv. L. Rev. 1771, April, 2015.


[14] United States v. Roblero-Solis, 588 F.3d 692, 693 (9th Cir. 2009) (holding that failure to address each defendant personally violates Rule 11(b)(1)).


[15] United States v. Diaz-Ramirez, 646 F.3d 653, 657 (9th Cir. 2011).


[16] See, e.g., State v. Mendoza, 113 So.3d 288 (La. Ct. App. 2013); Lamb v. State, 629 S.E.2d 165 (Ga. Ct. App. 2006).


[17] Howell v. State, 185 S.W.3d 319, 322 (Tenn. 2006).


[18] See generally, Lamb v. State, 628 S.E.2d 165, 169 (Ga. Ct. App. 2006) (noting that mass plea hearings are “not improper”); Wright v. State, 411 S.W.3d 381, 387 (Mo. Ct. App. 2013) (“the use of group pleas is a problematic practice”); Howell v. State, 185 S.W.3d 319, 332 (Tenn. 2006) (“we caution trial courts against conducting group plea hearings”).


[19] Order, supra note 8.

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