Colonial juries often acquitted criminal defendants to save them from harsh punishment. Jury nullification was common long before the nascence of the Constitution. As exemplified by the trial of John Peter Zenger, juries had emerged as a protection of individual liberty as against the power of the state. Not only do criminal defendants have the right to an impartial jury (or, in the case of Massachusetts, judgment of peers) but also members of society enjoy the right to participate as jurors. The very idea of jury trial is to assure the fairness of trials for the government, the accused and the community.
It would seem, then, that composition of the jury is equally important to the defendant, the prosecutor and the rest of society. The Constitution, indeed, offers a variety of avenues to travel when we journey into jury trial terrain: Art. 3, Sec. 2 guarantee of trial by jury for criminal matters, the 6th Amendment's requirement of an impartial jury, the 14th Amendment guarantee to equal protection and to due process of law. Further, each state constitution may provide new routes.
Along with a defendant's right to an impartial jury, due process of law and equal protection is the individual citizen's right to serve on a jury and society's right to have confidence in the fairness of trial verdicts (Art. 4, Sec. 2 and the 14th Amendment both guarantee the privileges and immunities of citizenship for all and the Preamble collectively acknowledges the unification of all Americans). The pervasiveness and diversity of these rights encourages evaluation in regard to the manner in which the jury pool is drawn to how it may be dispersed if different courts exist in the county to appropriate voir dire to whether a juror is struck for cause to the propriety of any peremptory challenges.
Perhaps due to the myriad choices, litigants argue and courts rule with tentative, fragile determinations. Indeed, in the seminal case of Batson v. Kentucky, the petitioner brought his peremptory challenge issue under the 6th Amendment but it was decided under the 14th (to great consternation by both Justices Burger and Rehnquist). The goal of the case was to stop the government from exercising peremptories in such a way as to effectively eliminate minority members of the community from serving as jurors. Whose right is that? The defendant's right to a fair cross section of the community (traditionally a 6th Amendment argument, an argument essentially rejected by the Court) or the juror's right to serve (an equal protection 14th Amendment right not to be excluded from the role of citizens)? In the plurality, Justice Marshall's concurrence was most profound. He declared that the only way to end racial discrimination in peremptory challenges is to eliminate them entirely. Can we get to optimal juries by foregoing the peremptory challenge?
Massachusetts' fair cross section-type argument predates and is cited within Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). Justice Marshall pointed out its ineffectiveness in eradicating bias as it is too easy to deliver a plausible rationale that does not involve race for any peremptory challenge. Reaffirming the rebuttable presumption of propriety for peremptory challenges, in Commonwealth v. Scott, the Supreme Judicial Court recently averred that because (a) the defendant did not dispute the "race neutral" proffer by the government, (b) the jury could fairly be considered to represent a fair cross section of the community as constructed, and (c) the judge determined there was no pattern of discrimination, the argument would fail.
The ruling reflects the Sisyphean nature of the peremptory challenge argument. Justice Marshall even predicted that Batson would exacerbate the problem of bias as the "colorblind" era emerged. In light of Justice Marshall's carefully considered concurrence, perhaps we can even embrace the current Court's reactionary fundamentalism suggesting that words mean only what they meant in the moment they were written even when they were written with an eye to the future, to growth and to revolutionary change. The right of individual jurors to decide both the law and the facts, to nullify existing law, to demonstrate mercy was, indeed, familiar to the Framers. It is this right that they so jealously protected for both the accused and for the greater community.
In our great democracy, there is a place for jury nullification and for permitting the jury to limit the penalties ascribed by the legislature if the people - otherwise utterly divorced from the criminal justice system - find that their representatives have been too harsh. We must take pains to acknowledge that we are incarcerating too many people, that we are disproportionately incarcerating young African American men, and too often with white juries, that we tend to punish the poor by ensuring their poverty with convictions, and too often with wealthier juries, that the current economic climate distances the poor from the middle and upper classes in increasingly uncomfortable ways, that the language of the Magna Carta regarding judgment of peers was exactly that - nobles judging nobles - that it is time to address both the conscious and unconscious bias in the jury selection process when we review under fair cross section, equal protection, due process and (in Massachusetts) "judgment of peers". It is time to reconsider representational juries and proportionality in the venire and greater voir dire to eliminate jurors for cause. And, in exchange we can eliminate peremptory challenges in order to effect fairer trials.
Hardly radical, John Adams himself declared that jurors should reach their verdict as of conscience even if it is in opposition to the direction of the court. He had great company in this belief. But, how do we get this jury of conscience, this jury of independence, this jury so willing to stand up for justice that they are willing to sit down to deliberate? Is it possible that what the Constitution intends and what fairness dictates is really a jury that reflects the community by age, by politics, by race, by ethnicity, by religion, by gender and by socioeconomic status? Perhaps in places like Massachusetts that provides for judgment by peers the requirement extends to oversample the community as to the defendant's peers, whoever they may be? If the jury trial was so important that it is included in not only the body of the Constitution, but again in an amendment passed soon after, weren't they trying to tell us something?
As political parties gallop into the homestretch of a tight and often bewildering campaign season, they have so finely tuned their get-out-the-vote effort that they have developed microtargeting algorithms including everything from party affiliation to installation of home swimming pools to magazine subscriptions in order to identify and reach out to potential votes. Initially, all elections for federal officials was through an indirect vote; for president this is still true. The drafters of the Constitution, however,
directly involved the citizenry in perhaps its most important role, as
jurors in judgment of a peer and as a check on all three branches of
Given that jury service is therefore more important than the vote, has the time come to use this technology and establish better and more diverse jury pools, improve the jury questionnaire, increase voir dire process, strike only for cause (perhaps with proportionality restrictions), encourage deliberation and debate by allowing the jury to know the potential penalty and provide them with the opportunity to craft law?
Courts have created winding roads that meander without really leading anywhere. The right of a jury trial is the defendant's. The right of trial by jury is society's. The intersection of these rights has the potential to transform democracy in new and brilliant ways by reclaiming what the Framers intended - people freely participating in their own government.
As we prepare to exercise our vote next week, we might take just a moment to remember that all of us have a duty of citizenry that is not dependent upon advertisements and slogans; it is not dependent on the party in power or the stagnation of our elected officials. Our duty of citizenry can never be more effectively demonstrated than in jury trials. To ensure that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this Earth, we must seek engagement in all aspects of the configuration of the jury for criminal trials. If taxation without representation roused our forbears, incarceration without representation should be an alarm clock for us.