RE: The Importance of Jury Duty
In recognition of Law Day 2017 (May 1st), and our focus on the 14th Amendment to our Constitution invoking Citizenship, Due Process and Equal Protection under the law, I want to emphasize the importance of our jury trial system, and its critical role to find justice in our Courts and Communities.
Jury service is a privilege and responsibility that should be accepted with pride. For by doing so, a citizen juror will have a direct hand in the administration of justice. Our justice system cannot work fairly unless jurors participate and perform their duties faithfully. It is this teamwork of judge and jury, working together in a common effort, that the protection of our rights and liberties is achieved.
The American jury trial is a constitutional right. The founding fathers believed that the right to be tried by a jury of your peers was so important that it merited inclusion in the highest law of the land. Amendments 6 and 7 of the Bill of Rights contain this right:
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.
While many issues were subject to vigorous debate during the crafting of our Constitution, this one right was universally recognized as essential to our Constitutional Republic. The founding fathers included jury trials in the Constitution because jury trials prevent tyranny. The definition of tyranny is oppressive power exerted by the government. Tyranny also exists when absolute power is vested in a single ruler. Jury trials are the opposite of tyranny because the citizens on the jury are given the absolute power to make the final decision. And it was that tyranny of an oppressive King that our Founding Fathers sought to avoid in creating a system of fairness, due process and citizen involvement in government.
The jury trial is an essential part of America’s system of checks and balances. “Checks and balances” means that the judicial branch of government is equal to the other two branches (executive and legislative) and the courts can overturn laws or acts of government that violate constitutional rights. Our system of checks and balances requires a strong judicial branch. A strong judicial branch requires a healthy jury trial option. Jury service is your chance to have a voice in the judicial branch of government.
Trial by jury is a unique part of America’s democracy. Most countries do not have jury trials. It is one of the things that make us unique as a country, and something we should be proud of. As Thomas Jefferson recalled, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
Jury trials provide an opportunity for citizens to participate in the process of governing. Serving on a jury is the most direct and impactful way for citizens to connect to the constitution. It is more active and participatory than voting. Jury service remains one of the truest forms of democracy, citizens judging citizens. A healthy jury trial system is critical to fair and efficient administration of justice and equal application of the law.
Jury trials also educate jurors about the justice system. Studies show that people who serve on juries have a greater respect for the system when they leave. Serving on a jury gives people insight into the justice system and their own communities, and corrects misapprehensions about what takes place in a courtroom.
Jury trials provide a method of peaceful dispute resolution. Most citizens will be impacted at some point in their life by a conflict, such as a divorce, a personal injury due to negligence, a contractual dispute, an employment dispute, etc. There are many ways to resolve such disagreements, but if other methods fail, a jury trial is one way to have final resolution in a peaceful manner.
Jury trials offer the voice of the people to the civil and criminal justice systems. If you are accused of a crime, you have the right to ask for a jury of your peers to judge your guilt or innocence. In a civil case, a jury of citizens will determine community standards and expectations in accordance with the law. Juries provide the voice of common sense and the perspective of the citizen to our developing body of law. But this system of justice does not work without you.
As Founding Father John Adams declared more than two centuries ago: “Representative government and trial by jury are the HEART AND LUNGS OF LIBERTY. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”
When called to serve, I urge you to participate. Our system of justice can only be strengthened by your participation. And your dedication to your civic duty will be much appreciated by your fellow citizens. Happy Law Day 2017.
Christopher N. Patterson, Circuit Judge
Fourteenth Judicial Circuit