Keep Our Families Safe
On May 1st, many lawyers and legal scholars in America celebrated Law Day. This yearly observance was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 to honor our nation’s heritage of liberty, justice, and equality under the law.
This year’s theme, “The American Jury: We the People in Action,” is particularly relevant at this time when all Americans are seeing their Constitutional right to a trial by jury threatened by attacks at the state and federal levels.
The right to a jury trial has been a force for justice for over 2,000 years, since the Romans. President Thomas Jefferson, who worked to include this principle in the Bill of Rights, called the jury process the best of all possible safeguards for the person, property, and reputation of every citizen.
Presenting your case to a jury of your peers is a cornerstone of American democracy. For most Americans, it will be the primary way – other than voting, serving in the military, or paying taxes – in which they directly participate in the democratic process. In contrast to other nations, where paid and appointed judges alone hand down decisions, we depend on America’s jurors to help balance the scales of justice.
More than five million Americans are called for jury duty each year to determine guilt or innocence, safety and security, and in the most serious of cases, life or death. When we entrust jurors from our communities to decide legal cases, we reinforce our faith that ordinary citizens can make the right decision, and no individual receives special treatment because of race, religion, education level, or economic status.
Juries are made up of our friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers – in other words, ordinary Americans.
For all the complaints about the jury system, the evidence suggests that juries get it right almost all of the time. In a recent American Bar Association study, Perceptions of the U.S. Justice System, a sampling of the American public agreed by a 78 to 17% margin that "the jury system is the most fair way to determine the guilt or innocence of a person accused of a crime."
In another survey of federal judges paralleling this conclusion, 97% of the 594 federal judges surveyed said they agree with the jury verdicts most or all of the time. Even more encouraging, by an 8-1 ratio, federal judges said that if they were on trial, they would prefer to have their dispute decided by a jury rather than a judge.
However, powerful interests are currently lobbying Congress daily to undermine your right to a fair trial by a jury. Negligent corporations and industry groups don’t like the fact that groups of ordinary citizens can find them liable for causing serious injury, death, or financial harm, and levy heavy fines or punishment against them for criminal behavior. And some Congressional leaders are attempting to push through a host of legislation, such as arbitrary, one-size-fits-all limits on the damages juries can provide for victims of medical negligence or dangerous products – which completely pervert over 200 years of America’s jury tradition.
The great majority of working Americans would probably be alarmed to find out that corporate interests are working not only to influence the instruments of government and obtain special protections against accountability, but to devalue and restrict the fundamental right of citizen participation in government.
Almost no one looks forward to jury duty, even though most who serve find it a valuable and educational way of participating first-hand in our democracy. But when you and your family find yourselves depending on a jury’s decision, the importance of a fair and wise jury panel increases. This bedrock American institution – the citizen jury – helps ensure freedom of expression, the sanctity of contracts, the rights of workers, the safety of products and services, the preservation of the environment, and all the underpinnings of civil society.
Those who seek to undermine this essential institution fundamentally distrust the American people - you, your family, your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers - who do their patriotic duty by serving on juries.
Todd A. Smith, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, is a partner in the Chicago, IL, law firm of Power Rogers & Smith.