5. Trials: How the Jury Protects Trials from Politics

“[D]emocracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried .…”

Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

Perhaps the same thing could be said about juries. No one ever said a jury is perfect. No one in their right mind would say that juries don’t make mistakes or that they are not biased. Juries in the American South would never convict a white person for killing a black person. You get the idea. The list of defects in the jury system could go on and on.

But, when it comes down to our sitting in judgment on our fellow man, or, for that matter, having our fellow man sit in judgment on us, the jury trial may be the lesser of all available evils. Would your rather have a politician sit in judgment on you? What about having a lawyer decide your fate? No? Oh, you say, “If I have to have someone make an important decision about my life, why not choose a judge to decide whether I go to jail or whether my property will be taken away?” Really? But . . . isn’t a judge just a “lawyer” who decided to become a “politician” when he or she decided to run for office or asked the politicians to help him or her be appointed to a judgeship?

Those of us who have spent our lives hanging around courthouses know that the jury system is the very best way to remove “politics” from the decision-making process. To see how this works, consider that no juror has ever had to:

  1. run for office,
  2. ask for a campaign contribution,
  3. make a campaign promise,
  4. explain why he or she broke a campaign promise,
  5. have a political opponent use his or her decision against him or her,
  6. worry about being shunned at the country club,
  7. stand for re-election,
  8. explain to a constituent about a decision he or she made,
  9. have a job, a salary, or a position to lose,
  10. ask for a salary increase,
  11. worry about being re-elected or re-appointed,
  12. feel obligated to someone who help him or her be elected or appointed,
  13. be voted out of office.

In contrast, a judge may be affected by every one of the above and many more. The very nature of being a judge, whether elected or appointed, is, essentially, to be a part of the political process. Some judges do an excellent job of coping with these political factors. Others spend their lives pretending not to be affected by the very realities described above.

But the point is: A jury doesn’t face these political realities. A jury comes together for only one case. After that case, the jury dissolves and vanishes into nowhere. It has no name, no reputation, no legacy to lose. In a thousand years, no one has ever tracked down a jury and said, “You guys were just so great that we want to get you back together to continue to make a bunch of decisions for us.” The flip side is that, neither can the jurors be identified as a group that can be blamed or humiliated. So, a jury is free to make decisions based on each member’s own conscience with each juror accountable only to himself or herself and their God.

Will a jury’s decisions be the “right decision”? Maybe. Maybe not. But we do know that it will likely not be political. And, when a jury makes a decision based, not on political influence, but rather on their own conscience, it has a ripple effect. It forces others in the courtroom, the judges, the lawyers, and the litigants, to focus a little less on political and financial influence and a little more on what’s fair, just, and right. This ripple effect goes far beyond the individual case decided by a jury. Because jury trials are a reality, lawyers and judges spend their days asking themselves the same question over and over: “What would a jury do in this particular case?” Perhaps, more importantly, the powerful, privileged, and politically connected, who think of themselves as being above the law and exempt from the rules of decency, sometimes wake up in the night wondering whether they should go ahead and cheat the disadvantaged given the fact that they might have to face a jury.


Robin M. Green © 2019. All Rights Reserved.