Historical note: 218 years ago today the Constitutional Convention got underway at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The convention did away with the original Articles of Confederation and replaced them with our Constitution. Thanks, guys!
There has been much debate and concern lately about judges having the authority to override the will of the people as reflected in the legislative process. Not much has been said about the power of the people as represented by a jury to overrule judges.
I just finished conducting a seminar on Constitutional myths and facts. One of the items we covered was the court system and an individual’s right to a jury trial in both criminal and civil court. Why was jury trial so important to the founders that they felt they needed to secure it for civil offences and other particulars in the Bill of Rights? (link)
The Constitution, Article III, Section 2, Paragraph 3:
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
The Bill of Rights:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
I propose that it is because the founders were concerned that judges would eventually usurp the true power of the jury.
Historically the principle of common law jury or trial by country has ruled. This was first established on June 15, 1215 at Runnymede, England when King John signed the Magna Carta. The first Supreme Court Justice, John Jay, put it best when he said, in the case of George Vs Brailsford (3 Dall 1):
“It is presumed, that juries are the best judges of facts; it is, on the other hand, presumed that courts are the best judges of law. But still both objects are within your power of decision … you have a right to take it upon yourselves to judge of both, and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy.”
Many today are not aware that that right is afforded to a jury. As recently as 1972, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the jury has an “unreviewable and irreversible power – to acquit in disregard of instructions on the law given by the trial judge.”(US vs Dougherty, 473 F 2d 1113, 1139).
If a jury feels a law is unjust the jury has the power to acquit. This was also the decision in the appeals of US vs Moylan, 417 F 2d 1002, 1006 (1969). Additionally, on June 24, 2004 the Supreme Court ruled that a judge couldn’t boost a sentence with out the jury weighing in. This in itself brings forth the fact that jurors need to be aware of their duties and rights.
Why have you not heard of these duties and rights? Because it is the citizen’s responsibility to know the rights and duties of being a juror.
Let’s look again at US vs Dougherty. Another quote from this 1972 case was: “The fact that there is widespread existence of the jury’s prerogative, and approval of its existence as a necessary counter to case hardened judges and arbitrary prosecutors, does not establish as an imperative that the jury must be informed by the judge of that power.” This is not surprising when you look back to 1895 and the case of Sparf vs US (156 US 51). The court ruled that although juries have the right to ignore a judge’s instruction on the law, they do not have to be made aware of their right to do so.
As a citizen you also need to be aware that there are efforts to keep those with this knowledge out of the jury box. We as concerned citizens can learn about those tactics by learning about court procedures. This information can be found in the “Advanced Trial Handbook” produced by Ervin A. Gonzalez and available here.
Be prepared the next time you are called for jury duty or in a court of law. You may save yourself or someone else from pain and suffering.