Gavel-to-gavel coverage of high-profile criminal trials has so highlighted the importance of juries in American justice that they're now a topic of a prime-time TV show ("The Jury") as well as many popular movies ("Runaway Jury" being the latest).
Such media showcasing of the role of juries makes it all the more appropriate, then, for the Supreme Court to reaffirm the primacy of juries over judges in deciding what evidence should be used in determining guilt and sentences.
In fact, in the decision Blakely v. Washington handed down last week, a five-member majority of the high court endorsed the view that a judge, as "a lone employee of the state," did not have enough constitutional standing to add extra years to a criminal sentence unless the factors used for that additional punishment had been found valid by a jury "beyond a reasonable doubt."
The case involved a man who had kidnapped his estranged wife and was given an extra 37 months in prison by a Washington State judge who found he had acted with "deliberate cruelty."
This Supreme Court ruling, while placing a greater burden on many state governments and possibly upending the 1984 sentencing guidelines for federal judges, nonetheless asserts that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a right to a jury trial should not be eroded for practical reasons. (See story, page 2).
"Our decision cannot turn on whether or to what degree trial by jury impairs the efficiency or fairness of criminal justice," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia, for the majority (which included both conservatives and liberals).
Indeed, trial by jury is guaranteed three times in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Juries are the only political institution in which citizens directly exercise governmental power, and serve as a way to prevent abuse of law by those who are appointed or elected to office.
The Founders wanted juries to bring community sentiments to the rule of law and to mediate between defendants, prosecutors, police, and judges. That French observer of 19th-century America, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted "the jury is both the most effective way of establishing the people's rule and the most efficient way of teaching them how to rule."
More than a million Americans serve as jurors each year. The court's ruling helps restore some of the power of juries that has been whittled away over the decades by judges and legislators. This egalitarian institution must be preserved as a system that instills both a sense of duty and freedom among citizens, and fairness to defendants.