Civil jury and its place in the American legal system
America’s legal system is not perfect. But if we’re being honest, what system is? Moreover, even if there existed a perfect system, imperfect men and women would be responsible for its discharge. This would all but guarantee its inevitable demise in the absence of the most stringently enforced checks and balances. In The Federalist No. 51, James Madison recognized man’s fallibility and therefore argued against a gradual concentration of powers. He explained as follows:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.”
In the same vein, Thomas Jefferson opined, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
Nevertheless, despite history’s repeated warning, some still advocate for a more centralized governing body. Take for example a recent article in the Washington Post: The Uncivil Jury, part 1: Americans’ Misplaced Sentiment about the Civil Jury. In it, the author basically argues that because civil jury trial is at times long, expensive, and unpredictable, i.e. imperfect, that it should abolished and replaced by a panel of judges. The proposition is no doubt provocative. It would, most likely, succeed in making the process more efficient, affordable, and predictable. The problem, however, is that the purpose of instituting the practice of being judged by a jury of our peers has absolutely nothing to do with efficiency. What the author is advocating is not that we simply improve an imperfect system, but rather that we redefine its very nature and re-purpose it for something it was never intended. And lest we forget, jury trials were designed to be a bulwark against tyranny and corruption, at least according to Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
That is not to say, however, that common sense reforms to address its deficiencies shouldn’t be considered. To the contrary, if the system can be improved, let’s improve it. But to strip the people of their constitutional protections in the name of convenience is not only short-sighted, it’s irresponsible and dangerous.