On Tuesday, Professor Nesson posed the following questions: Why should an arraignment in criminal law be different from civil law? Does pleading guilty or not guilty even make sense? Should, as in the case of My Cousin Vinny, the defendant be able to expand upon what exactly they did and did not do?
After listening to my classmates and thinking about this for a day, it seems to me that there are a couple of key reasons that the simplicity of pleading guilty or not guilty (I realize there are several more options, e.g., No Contest and Double Jeopardy) is reasonable.
The State must prove all elements of the crime (actus reus, mens rea, causation), so it does not make sense to allow the defendant to answer each fact (or element) in turn, as a defendant would do in response to a civil complaint. Once a defendant in a criminal matter disagrees with a single element, because of the burden on the State to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant would be necessarily saying they are not guilty of the crime. Thus, a one-word response to the question of guilty or not guilty is efficient. Whereas in a civil matter, a defendant can disagree with some claims and not contest others.
Procedural safeguards (that do not exist in civil law) precede the arraignment hearing in a criminal matter. So, when we ask whether it is fair to WE the people whether an arraignment hearing is limited to a one-word response, we forget that, for example, WE the people, indicted the defendant through a grand jury. A grand jury indictment does not exist in civil law. In sum, I wonder if we should ever compare one procedural mechanism in criminal law to the absence of that procedural mechanism in civil law – don’t we always need to consider all of the mechanisms and how they work together for each legal system?
I was just thinking a bit on this issue, and I think Vinny supplies a compelling argument for why a more complicated, civ-pro'ish openness to dealing w/ arraignment would be futile. As OP states, a defendant in a criminal trial has (presumably) already been indicted - there has been some mechanism to demonstrate that there is in fact some validity to the case against him. With that box checked off, what would be the point in his arguing before a judge, with no jury present, which elements he disagrees with? There's a futility to that gesture, which Vinny gets at when (after another pre-trial failure of his), he rebuts Stan's assertion that a more spirited defense at pre-trial might have gotten the case thrown out: "You're in Ala-fucking-bama. You killed a good ol' boy. There is NO WAY this is not going to trial." I think Vinny's reasoning is sound, and can be applied to arguments pushing for more defendant-flexibility at arraignment. It's not going to change anything; ergo, it only serves to tip the defendant's hand or further pigeonhole him in later proceedings.
It might be a threshold step to determine if the accused even warrants a trial to prove their innocence. Those unable to successfully put forth plausible protestations of innocence at arraignment might find themselves automatically convicted.