What Does "Trial on Merits" Mean?

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Merit is a word with positive associations. Someone who rises on her own merits is a person who uses her character, intelligence and perseverance to get ahead in the world, rather than someone who inherits money or position. Similarly, a judgment on the merits is a court case outcome that resolves the core factual and legal issues presented, rather than skidding to a conclusion based on legal technicalities. While the public is more satisfied after a controversial trial if the judgment is on the merits than by some other resolution, certain "technicalities" are built into the fundamental principles of the American legal system.

Adjudication on the Merits

It's not hard to find a story about a criminal who escapes justice because of crafty legal techniques. Of course, what some call technicalities might actually be fundamental rights set out in the Constitution. But the end result is the same: The person's guilt or innocence in a criminal proceeding or his liability in a civil action has not been determined in the court process.

By contrast, a trial on the merits is a court action in which the ultimate issues of fact and law are resolved. Did the businessman defraud investors? Did the defendant murder her grandmother? If these core questions are answered, the adjudication was on the merits.

Trial on the Merits in a Criminal Case

It is easier to spot an adjudication on the merits in a criminal case than in a civil one. The core question in a criminal case is always whether the defendant is guilty or innocent of the charges against him. Any result that doesn't answer the central question of guilt means that the judgment is not on the merits.

For example, if the defendant is charged with robbing a bank, a trial on the merits will discuss the underlying facts. The prosecutor will call witnesses who were in the bank when it was robbed and offer forensic evidence that she was the culprit, like fingerprints on the stolen bills. There might be security videos or testimony from the driver of the get-away car who turns state's evidence.

On the defendant's side, she may offer alibi evidence showing that she was in a meeting on the other side of the state when the bank was robbed. She may try to discredit the testimony of witnesses or bring in experts to prove that the videos are not of her. In the end, the jury will determine the ultimate question: Is she guilty or innocent of robbing the bank?

Technicalities in a Criminal Case

However, many criminal cases never go to trial on the merits. In fact, most are resolved by plea bargains. These involve a guilty plea to some charge, but the plea may have little to do with the merits of the crime at hand and result, instead, from the leverage the prosecutor has over the defendant because of his past criminal record.

Or, a defendant might avoid a trial on the merits by exercising his Constitutional rights. For example, if the police searched his home and found incriminating evidence of a crime, the defendant may be able to get the evidence excluded if the search was illegal. While this is not a resolution on the merits, the right to be free of illegal searches and seizures is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

Other technicalities that might result in a trial that is not on the merits include:

  • Violation of the right to a speedy trial. 
  • Violation of the right to effective counsel.
  • The right against self-incrimination.
  • Expiration of the statute of limitations.
  • Illegally obtained evidence.
  • Illegally obtained confession.
  • Double jeopardy.
  • Unconstitutionality of law.
  • Discriminatory enforcement of law.
  • Prosecutor's misconduct, like failure to disclose evidence favorable to the defense. 
  • Jury misconduct.

Keep in mind that rather than the machinations of crafty attorneys, these represent essential Constitutional rights of all criminal defendants.