Have you ever served on a jury? As a lawyer, I’ve observed juries over the years and found the whole process fascinating. But although I’ve been called and questioned for jury service several times, I’ve never actually sat on a jury.
A few years ago, I wrote a book review recounting one juror’s experience sitting on the jury in a particularly salacious trial in New York City (please see my review in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in 2002 of A Trial by Jury by D. Graham Burnett).
More recently I read another book about jury duty. Conceding that many of us try to avoid serving on a jury whenever we can, it makes a compelling argument that jury duty is absolutely vital in our democracy.
Here’s a review I’ve written of this new book, Why Jury Duty Matters.
Book Review: WHY JURY DUTY MATTERS
by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson
Does jury duty matter? Anyone who’s seen the 1957 film “12 Angry Men” can answer that. In that film, a single member of the fictional jury derails the conviction of a murder defendant when he persuades the other jurors that there’s reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt.
Real-world jury duty may not have the impact it does in that film, but it still matters—a lot. In “Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action,” Andrew Ferguson tells us just how consequential jury duty is.
Ferguson writes from his perspective as a former public defender with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where for seven years he represented adults and juveniles in serious felony cases. Now a professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia, he has focused on how vital jury duty is to our democracy.
Ferguson notes that the significance of the jury was enshrined from the beginning of our country in the United States Constitution. He points out that jury duty is “one of the last unifying acts of citizenship”—our “recurring civil obligation to head down to the courthouse and participate in resolving a criminal or civil case involving members of the community.”
He skillfully weaves in references to history, tracing the evolution of juries, first in England and later in the U.S. For example, the unfair proceedings during the 1603 treason trial of Sir Walter Raleigh led to the right to confront witnesses, later enshrined in our Sixth Amendment. Likewise, the 1735 libel trial of John Peter Zenger probably inspired the Sixth Amendment’s right to a public jury trial, as well as the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and press. And the revolt against much unfairness by the British, which led to the American Revolution, led in turn to this theme in the Constitution: protection against arbitrary police power. The jury is a bulwark against that power.
Ferguson carefully reviews the many roles that jurors play:
- deliberating—reviewing the evidence and making a collective decision; thinking together, using reason and informed discussion to reach a decision
- protecting dissenting voices—allowing each juror to dissent from the majority’s conclusion
- judging accountability—assuming the responsibility to hold someone accountable
- giving equal treatment to information and ideas, and above all,
- ensuring fairness.
The key is fairness.
As Ferguson emphasizes, each of these roles, when taken to heart by jurors, leads to faith in our jury system. And the faith we have in our juries is the cornerstone of our democracy.