Many people dread receiving their jury duty summons. So much so that where I work in Washington, DC (yes, the nation’s capital), some 70,000 Washingtonians failed to respond to their jury summons in 2014.
Why Jury Duty Matters?
My friend and colleague Andrew Ferguson published a fabulous book that fully explores why jury duty is so important. Here is a summary of his argument –
Turning the dread of jury duty into a form of enjoyment begins with understanding why jury duty matters. Simply put, it may well be the closest you ever come to the Constitution – not just exercising a right it gives you, but participating in the process through which constitutional rights and values come alive in practice. In a country formed from a single founding document, it is amazing how disconnected most of us are from its meaning and purpose. Jury duty changes that reality – it is a day of constitutional connection.
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A jury summons is an invitation to participation. Jurors are asked to involve themselves in some of the most personal, sensational, and terrifying events in a community. It is real life, usually real tragedy, played out in court. Jurors confront disturbing facts, bloody images, or heart-wrenching testimony. A jury may have to decide whether a man lives or dies, or whether a multimillion-dollar company goes bankrupt. A jury will have to pass judgment in a way that will have real-world effects on both parties before the court. This active role was not accidental. Participation in jury service teaches the skills required for democratic self-government. Being a juror lets you develop the habits and skills of citizenship.
Juries and The American Revolution
Juries were viewed as an essential safeguard of liberty well before the American Revolution, but I will start our story here nonetheless.
Early American jurors frequently protected the rights of individuals by refusing to enforce acts of Parliament. In 1735, for example, a New York jury famously acquitted John Peter Zenger of seditious libel for publishing a critique of the colonial governor. They ruled that Zenger had the right to publish the truth, despite being instructed by the trial judge that truth was no defense to a seditious libel charge.
In the Declaration of Independence, the list of “repeated injuries and usurpations” committed by the King of Great Britain included this language justifying Independence: “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury”.
Thomas Jefferson, the principal architect of the Declaration of Independence, would later say “I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
Juries and the Constitution
Article III, Section 2, Clause 3 reads
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.
Joseph Story described the importance of this guarantee of jury trials in all criminal cases in his Commentaries on the Constitution –
§ 1773. It seems hardly necessary in this place to expatiate upon the antiquity, or importance of the trial by jury in criminal cases. It was from very early times insisted on by our ancestors in the parent country, as the great bulwark of their civil and political liberties, and watched with an unceasing jealousy and solicitude. The right constitutes the fundamental articles of Magna Charta, in which it is declared, “nullus homo capiatur, nec imprisonetur, aut exulet, aut aliquo modo destruatur, &c.; nisi per legale judicium parium suorum, vel per legem terrae;” no man shall be arrested, nor imprisoned, nor banished, nor deprived of life, &c. but by the judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. The judgment of his peers here alluded to, and commonly called in the quaint language of former times a trialper pais, or trial by the country, is the trial by a jury, who are called the peers of the party accused, being of the like condition and equality in the state. When our more immediate ancestors removed to America, they brought this great privilege with them, as their birth-right and inheritance, as a part of that admirable common law, which had fenced round, and interposed barriers on every side against the approaches of arbitrary power. It is now incorporated into all our state constitutions, as a fundamental right; and the constitution of the United States would have been justly obnoxious to the most conclusive objection, if it had not recognised, and confirmed it in the most solemn terms.
§ 1774. The great object of a trial by jury in criminal cases is, to guard against a spirit of oppression and tyranny on the part of rulers, and against a spirit of violence and vindictiveness on the part of the people. Indeed, it is often more important to guard against the latter, than the former. The sympathies of all mankind are enlisted against the revenge and fury of a single despot; and every attempt will be made to screen his victims. But how difficult is it to escape from the vengeance of an indignant people, roused into hatred by unfounded calumnies, or stimulated to cruelty by bitter political enmities, or unmeasured jealousies? The appeal for safety can, under such circumstances, scarcely be made by innocence in any other manner, than by the severe control of courts of justice, and by the firm and impartial verdict of a jury sworn to do right, and guided solely by legal evidence and a sense of duty. In such a course there is a double security against the prejudices of judges, who may partake of the wishes and opinions of the government, and against the passions of the multitude, who may demand their victim with a clamorous precipitancy. So long, indeed, as this palladium remains sacred and inviolable, the liberties of a free government cannot wholly fall. But to give it real efficiency, it must be preserved in its purity and dignity; and not, with a view of slight inconveniences, or imaginary burthens, be put into the hands of those, who are incapable of estimating its worth, or are too inert, or too ignorant, or too imbecile, to wield its potent armour. Mr. Justice Blackstone, with the warmth and pride becoming an Englishman living under its blessed protection, has said: “A celebrated French writer, who concludes, that because Rome, Sparta, and Carthage have lost their liberties, therefore those of England in time must perish, should have recollected, that Rome, Sparta, and Carthage, at the time, when their liberties were lost, were strangers to the trial by jury.”
During the state debates over ratification of the Constitution, many objected to the Constitution’s lack of a guarantee for jury trials in civil cases. This was addressed by the addition of the Seventh Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
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.
The Sixth Amendment also discusses jury trial –
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.
Thomas Jefferson in 1789 wrote –
We think in America that it is necessary to introduce the people into every department of government as far as they are capable of exercising it; and that this is the only way to ensure a long-continued and honest administration of it’s powers. 1. They are not qualified to exercise themselves the EXECUTIVEdepartment: but they are qualified to name the person who shall exercise it. With us therefore they chuse this officer every 4. years. 2. They are not qualified to LEGISLATE. With us therefore they only chuse the legislators. 3. They are not qualified to JUDGE questions of law; but they are very capable of judging questions of fact. In the form of JURIES therefore they determine all matters of fact, leaving to the permanent judges to decide the law resulting from those facts. But we all know that permanent judges acquire an Esprit de corps, that being known they are liable to be tempted by bribery, that they are misled by favor, by relationship, by a spirit of party, by a devotion to the Executive or Legislative; that it is better to leave a cause to the decision of cross and pile, than to that of a judge biassed to one side; and that the opinion of 12 honest jurymen gives still a better hope of right, than cross and pile does. It is left therefore to the juries, if they think the permanent judges are under any biass [sic] whatever in any cause, to take upon themselves to judge the law as well as the fact. They never exercise this power but when they suspect partiality in the judges, and by the exercise of this power they have been the firmest bulwarks of English liberty. Were I called upon to decide whether the people had best be omitted in the Legislative or Judiciary department, I would say it is better to leave them out of the Legislative. The execution of the laws is more important than the making them. However it is best to have the people in all the three departments where that is possible.
Given this history, you should be much more enthusiastic when you receive your jury summons. I look forward to receiving mine!