The Value of a Jury System

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  • Topic: Jury, Jury trial, Common law
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  • Published : October 8, 1999
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The Value of a Jury System

The Founders of our nation understood that no idea was more central to our Bill of Rights -- indeed, to government of the people, by the people, and for the people -- than the citizen jury. It was cherished not only as a bulwark against tyranny but also as an essential means of educating Americans in the habits and duties of citizenship. By enacting the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments to the Constitution, the Framers sought to install the right to trial by jury as a cornerstone of a free society.

The Framers of the Constitution felt that juries -- because they were composed of ordinary citizens and because they owed no financial allegiance to the government -- were indispensable to thwarting the excesses of powerful and overzealous government officials. The jury trial was the only right explicitly included in each of the state constitutions devised between 1776 and 1789 . And the criminal jury was one of few rights explicitly mentioned in the original federal constitution proposed by the Philadelphia Convention. Anti-federalists complained that the proposed constitution did not go far enough in protecting juries, and federalists eventually responded by enacting three constitutional amendments guaranteeing grand, petit, and civil juries. The need for juries was especially acute in criminal cases: A grand jury could block any prosecution it deemed unfounded or malicious, and a petit jury could likewise interpose itself on behalf of a defendant charged unfairly. The famous Zenger case in the 1730s dramatized the libertarian advantages of juries . When New York's royal government sought to stifle its newspaper critics through criminal prosecution, New York grand juries refused to indict, and a petit jury famously refused to convict .

But the Founders' vision of the jury went far beyond merely protecting defendants. The jury's democratic role was intertwined with other ideas enshrined in the Bill of Rights, including free speech and citizen militias. The jury was an essential democratic institution because it was a means by which citizens could engage in self-government. Nowhere else -- not even in the voting booth -- must Americans come together in person to deliberate over fundamental matters of justice . Jurors face a solemn obligation to overlook personal differences and prejudices to fairly administer the law and do justice.

As the great historian of anti-federalist thought, Herbert Storing, put it, "The question was not fundamentally whether the lack of adequate provision for jury trial would weaken a traditional bulwark of individual rights (although that was also involved) but whether it would fatally weaken the role of the people in the administration of government . Perhaps most important was the jury's educational mission. Through the jury, citizens would learn self-government by doing it. In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, "The jury is both the most effective way of establishing the people's rule and the most effective way of teaching them how to rule" . This learning, of course, would carry over to other political activity. As Tocqueville explained:

"Juries, especially civil juries, instill some of the habits of the judicial mind into every citizen, and just those habits are the very best way of preparing people to be free . They make all men feel that they have duties toward society and that they take a share in its government. By making men pay more attention to things other than their own affairs, they combat that individual selfishness which is like rust in society . [The jury] should be regarded as a free school which is always open and in which each juror learns his rights and is given practical lessons in the law. I think that the main reason for the political good sense of the Americans is their long experience with juries in civil cases" .

Once we see how juries serve as major avenues for popular education and political...
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