A jury’s fundamental role is to represent the wider community/citizenry in a legal matter’s decision making process, whether civil or criminal. It is one of the many tools used to ensure that citizens do not fall victim to a tyrannical government. Legal practitioners and constitutional scholars opine that a citizen who is randomly selected from the community, has no significant connection to the legal community (as would a judge or government official), and is unbiased/uncorrupted is more likely to mete out a just verdict. Judges, like other government members, may become too entwined with legalities over the course of their careers to distinguish between rigidly following a law and deciding justly. Since justice is an indispensable aspect of a free society, trial by jury will remain a critical aspect of the justice system that assists in preventing/counteracting government oppression.
Jury Nullification and its Purpose
As the name states, jury nullification is when a jury exercises its power to nullify a case. That is to say, although a judge carries out his/her duty of instructing the jury on how to interpret a particular law in a particular case, the jury may reach a verdict contrary to said instructions and or the facts of the case. If the defendant is accused of or even confesses to committing an act that is against the law, the jury has the power to acquit the defendant if they believe that his/her reason for carrying out the said “illegal act” was a just one. For example, laws known as The Fugitive Slave Laws that were enacted during the chattel slavery era made criminals of both an enslaved individual who ran away to a free territory and anyone who gave refuge to the runaway slave. In a case against either party in this scenario, a jury in the state from which the slave escaped could very well acquit both parties. The jury’s basis for doing so may be that a law that supports chattel slavery/punishing runaway slaves/punishing someone for harboring a slave is an unjust one. Although the enslaved individual and the person who received him/her acted in contrast to the dictates of the law, the jury may disregard the law because of its inhumanity.
The Decline of Jury Nullification Use
Unfortunately, although a juror cannot be punished for his/her verdict nor can a defendant be retried after a jury has ruled in his/her favor, juries’ use of jury nullification as a tool to secure justice has dwindled tremendously. The main reason for this is that a judge’s decision to inform a jury of its nullification power is simply that, the judge’s decision. No law compels the judge to inform jurors of this power. Not surprisingly, judges often forego informing jury members of this right and instruct them to apply the law regardless of their personal feelings toward it. According to dissidents, jury nullification results in blatant disregard for the law. They also believe that jurors may base a guilty verdict on their own prejudices if the law does not guide their decision, thereby resulting in wrongful convictions/acquittals. Many even go as far as to theorize that some individuals may become jurors solely to nullify a law!
Whether jury nullification is a legitimate tool against government tyranny is debatable. However, the U.S.’s founding fathers intended jury nullification to be used to help maintain freedom. That is, they felt that justice is more likely served when a few, randomly selected individuals who represent the citizens at large use their power to impede government enforced laws that are deemed immoral or unpopular. A jury acts as a bulwark against unpopular/unjust laws by exercising an important veto power comparable to that which the U.S.’s three government branches hold. Each juror is entrusted with the duty of weighing the facts/evidence, determining whether a law is a just or oppressive one, and nullifying that law if deemed oppressive by returning a verdict of “not guilty.”
Jury Nullification Quotes
“The jury has the power to bring a verdict in the teeth of both law and fact.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, United States Supreme Court Justice
“The jury has a right to judge both the law as well as the facts in controversy.” — John Jay, 1st Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
“The pages of history shine on instances of the jury’s exercise of its prerogative to disregard instructions of the judge.” — U.S. vs. Dougherty, 1972
“It would be an absurdity for jurors to be required to accept the judge’s view of the law, against their own opinion, judgement, and conscience.” — John Adams
Websites Related to Jury Nullification
A nonprofit educational association whose mission is to inform all Americans about their rights, powers, and responsibilities when serving as trial jurors. FIJA also seeks to restore the jury’s political function as the final check and balance on the American system of government.
“Jury nullification of law,” as it is sometimes called, is a traditional right that America’s founding fathers rigorously defended. Those great men, Patriots all, intended the jury to serve as a final safeguard – a test that laws must pass before gaining sufficient popular authority for enforcement. Thus, the Constitution provides five separate tribunals with veto power – representatives, senate, executive, judges, and finally juries. Each enactment of law must pass all these hurdles before it gains the authority to punish those who may choose to violate it.
Our goal is to assist in educating our members about their legal, Constitutional, and civil rights, and the legal responsibilities of the legal/judicial commercial business.
J.A.I.L. (Judicial Accountability Initiative Law) is the People, providing the means by which they can carry out their right and duty to restore the rightful station of government by holding the judiciary as the intended guardian of their rights against arbitrary power, accountable to the People under constitutional law.