Jury service: legal classroom at the heart of the US justice system

As chief justice of California, the nation's most legally active state, Rose Elizabeth Bird holds a position second in importance only to the justices of the United States Supreme Court.

The jury is the backbone of the American system of justice. Our reliance on and confidence in the institution of the jury are unmatched by any other nation. A brief look at the history of the jury bears witness to the uniqueness of its development in the United States.

In the judicial system, unlike the executive and legislative branches, the term ''decisionmaker'' is not reserved for reference only to elected or appointed officials. Rather, it applies with equal force to both judges and juries. All citizens, without regard to wealth, occupation, or status, are eligible to serve as jurors. During such service they are as much the representatives of the judiciary as are the judges themselves.

The use of juries composed of lay citizens is of Anglo-Saxon derivation, originating with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. The jury system flourished for a time in the 1800s and early 1900s in countries across the European continent, including even czarist Russia. However, this proliferation proved to be short-lived. One by one, jury systems were eliminated or curtailed.

Hungary and Portugal abolished juries in 1919 and 1926, and Mussolini dismantled the Italian jury system in 1931. Juries were eliminated in Russia, its various satellite countries, and Yugoslavia immediately after the 1917 communist revolution. In 1924, Germany reverted to a system in which juries were replaced by panels composed of both judges and citizens, and France returned to a similar hybrid system in 1943.

Only a few countries have maintained a jury system over a substantial period of time. Great Britain and its Commonwealth nations, Austria, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, and Greece are in this select group. Nowhere, however, is the reliance on juries as pronounced as in the US. It has been estimated that more than 90 percent of all jury trials in the world are conducted here. It appears that California alone conducts nearly 20 percent of all the jury trials on this planet - over 16,000 annually.

Just what is it about the American jury system that makes it unique? Why is this system so essential to our courts' ability to safeguard the rule of law?

In his classic work ''Democracy in America,'' Alexis de Tocqueville saw lawyers and judges as America's aristocracy - a class of individuals bound together by their common legal training, specialized knowledge, and rigorous thought processes. He theorized that this group, with its predilection for rationality, order, and legal formalities, served as a necessary brake upon the sometimes headstrong impulses inherent in popular government.

Turning his analytical gaze on the jury system in the US, Tocqueville perceived the critical counterbalance that juries provide to the power and persuasiveness of lawyers and judges. He was struck by the genius of the American concept of the jury - an institution of the people, imbued with their common sense, embodying the customs of the community, and valuing liberty and freedom.

The very heart and soul of the American justice system is ''the jury, which, '' Tocqueville remarked, ''seems to restrict the rights of the judiciary (but) in reality consolidate(s) its power; and in no country are the judges so powerful as where the people share their privileges.''

Tocqueville believed that the jury system was as important an element of the sovereignty of the American people as universal suffrage. The institution of the jury ''places the real direction of society in the hands of the governed. ... (It) raises the people itself ... to the bench of judges (and) consequently invests the people ... with the direction of society.''

Also, juries tend to temper the rigid procedural and substantive requirements of the law with the evolving customs, values, and common sense of the lay community. Thus, our citizens are able to participate directly in the constant reshaping and refinement of both the laws and the attitudes of their government.

Jury service plays an important role in educating and enlightening the citizenry as a whole. The jury system is a ''gratuitous public school, ever open , in which every juror learns his rights . . . and becomes practically acquainted with the laws, which are brought within the reach of his capacity by the efforts of the bar, the advice of the judge, and even the passions of the parties.''

Tocqueville was firmly convinced that ''the practical intelligence and political good sense of the Americans'' were primarily the result of our long history of using the jury system. After a trial, jurors share their experiences with others. In so doing, ''the spirit of the judges'' is communicated ''to the minds of all the citizens.''

The lessons taught by this process are fundamental to our democracy. The jury , Tocqueville wrote, ''imbues all classes with a respect for the thing judged and with the notion of right.... It teaches men to practice equity; every man learns to judge his neighbor as he would himself be judged.... (It) teaches every man not to recoil before the responsibilities of his own actions....''

An educational process that builds a greater sense of community and fills our citizens with a spirit of personal involvement in and commitment to their society, jury service helps strengthen our social fabric. ''By obliging men to turn their attention to other affairs than their own,'' Tocqueville observed, ''(jury service) rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society.''

The jury system is not some mere appendage but has been a vital part of the American judiciary since its inception and an essential element of its continuing well-being. As one of our most tangible civic functions, jury service touches the lives of millions of Americans.

In California, for example, of the 11.1 million people eligible to vote, nearly 1.8 million are summoned each year for jury duty. From this group, over 225,000 citizens will actually be selected to serve on juries. Thus, over a five-year period, more than a million Californians will be sworn for jury duty.

An empirical study of jurors undertaken a few years ago found that jury service tends to significantly increase a person's satisfaction with and confidence in the justice system. Also, jury service has the effect of increasing a citizen's overall appreciation and understanding of the functions of government.

Whether from the perspective of theory, history, or empirical analysis, the jury emerges as an indispensable component of the American system of justice. It is, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, a ''valuable safeguard to liberty'' and ''the very palladium of free government.''

The institution of the jury functions as the primary link between the courts and the society they serve. The jury system permits every citizen to participate in the judicial decisionmaking process, and it provides every citizen with an opportunity to see the rule of law in operation.

Our jury system is indeed an invaluable resource. May we cherish and preserve it so that our democracy can continue to benefit from its wisdom.

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