Keep Our Families Safe

Jury Duty: The Responsibility of Every Citizen

Tragically, too many Americans have a negative view of serving on a jury: long trials, being cooped up in a small room while an expert drones on about complex topics, invasion of privacy and public ridicule.

It seems appropriate to offer a refresher course on the history and the importance of the American jury system.

There are three basic ways American citizens can demonstrate their patriotism: military service, such as that being offered by our men and women in Iraq; voting, and every person 18 years of age and older should exercise that privilege; and serving on a citizen jury to help dispense justice.

The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to trial by jury in civil cases. In fact, the first generation of Americans believed this right was so important that they threatened to reject the entire Constitution if such a right were not included.

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, with an increasing number of abuses by British administrators, the Americans would have loved to have had the chance to do what John Wilkes did. When agents of the Crown in London seized his opposition newsletter under an illegal warrant, Wilkes sued and won a large punitive damages verdict. The jurors for that case were cheered on both sides of the Atlantic.  

The colonists had no such opportunity. When the English governors tried to enforce the Stamp Act tax and other hated acts of Parliament in criminal and civil actions, the colonists appealed to local juries for relief. But the Crown said these cases would be tried by judges alone.

Loss of the right to a jury was closely associated with taxation without representation. When the Americans published their Declaration of Independence, they made a list of “repeated injuries and usurpations” committed on the part of King George, including, “...depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”

On a September day in 1787 in Philadelphia, as the delegates were about to go home after months of wrangling over a plan for the new government, one representative pointed out that no provision had been included for the right to a jury in civil cases. The exhausted delegates voted not to open up debate over a bill of rights.

The proposed Constitution met with heavy criticism.  Many Americans were particularly incensed at the absence of the jury right. Patrick Henry in Virginia railed against the lack of a civil jury provision.

Americans finally ratified the Constitution only after the Federalists committed to adding a Bill of Rights including the right to trial by jury.

These days, there are some people and lobby groups who choose to ridicule American juries and even seek to diminish their authority. The media circulates stories of “crazy” verdicts  – though the stories almost always turn out to be gross distortions or even fabrications. The perpetrators of jury-bashing are frequently the same sort of wealthy and powerful special interests that our Founders warned about.  

The jury is the bedrock of our democracy.  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.

The rule of law in America 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. It is worth considering that those who fashioned the nation’s fundamental law – the Constitution – insisted that the civil jury “shall be preserved.”