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Right to Trial by Jury: How Important?

NCJ Number
Trial Volume: 27 Issue: 10 Dated: (October 1991) Pages: 16-19
J H Michael Jr
Date Published
4 pages
This article examines the historical evolution of the jury system and arguments for and against trial by jury.
The right to a civil jury trial was a principal issue raised during debates over ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Among arguments advanced for civil jury trials were the protection of debtor-defendants, the frustration of unwise legislation, the vindication of interests of private citizens in litigation with the government, and the protection of litigants against overbearing and oppressive judges. The 19th century saw a shift in the way juries were perceived. In 1800, some 25 to 30 years after the American Revolution, the consensus was that a jury was the safeguard of citizen rights. In the days of Thomas Jefferson, juries were generally authorized to resolve not only issues of fact but also issues of law. This derived from natural law theory which held that citizens could respond to principles derived from nature in the absence of or in addition to statutory law. By the end of the 19th century, strong opposition to the jury system developed. Some considered the jury an anachronism, and the strongest antijurists believed the system impeded the administration of justice. Those who currently oppose the jury system argue that it wastes time. They also contend that it is difficult to find jurors who can comprehend the complex issues of an increasingly technological society. Scholars who favor continuing the jury system stress its role in reflecting community values in the judicial process. Other arguments for the jury system are that participation makes jurors personally aware of how the judicial system works and that a jury represents more diversity than the possible bias of a single person, the judge. The author believes the jury system promotes a form of participatory democracy in a branch of government not directly accountable to the people.