Albert Dzur: Twelve Absent Men

The Boston Review recently ran an article by political scientist Albert Dzur on the jury. It appeared on July 22, 2013, and was called “Twelve Absent Men.”

Until the early 20th century, the jury was the standard way Americans handled criminal cases, but today we operate largely without it. It has been supplanted by plea agreements, settlements, summary judgments, and other non-trial forums that are usually more efficient and cost-effective in the short term. In addition to cost and efficiency, justice officials worry about juror competence in the face of scientific and technical evidence and expert testimony, further diminishing the opportunity for everyday people to serve.

Nothing in the article should startle regular readers of this blog, but it was depressing to read how often the American criminal justice system manages to evade resort to juries. There is also a brief discussion of citizen juries.

Citizens’ juries assemble representative groups of lay citizens to deliberate about policy problems, normally quite concrete and specific, often in highly divisive areas such as urban planning and environmental protection. The jurors draw on expert analysis, deliberate together, and eventually issue a report that recommends a course of action for public authorities.

In Oregon, for example, citizens’ juries have been organized to evaluate a number of ballot measures, such as one proposing mandatory minimum sentences for certain repeat DUI and sex offenders and another permitting the distribution of medical marijuana. The result of the five-day-long sessions involving randomly selected and demographically adjusted groups of 24 citizens is a set of key findings, which are published in a “citizens’ statement” included in the official Oregon voters’ pamphlet.

4 Responses

  1. Dzur writes:

    Yet viewers who do nothing but imagine what it would be like to be part of this adventure avoid at all costs going on it themselves.

    Making jury duty a coveted assignment would be easy. (A reasonable pay would be an essential start, of course.) Making jury duty an irksome thankless task which is little more than a theater of power is useful for the professionals of the judicial system and for their powerful allies, and that is the reason it is so.

    It is a shame that Dzur describes the situation as if it is the result of some sort of an accident or a force of nature.


  2. The principal difference between judicial and legislative juries is that, in the latter case, the jury will often have a direct interest in the outcome. Jury service in criminal cases is more a case of civic obligation. I’m down for jury service in November and I’m looking forward to it, but that’s only on account of my interest in sortition.


  3. Not a convincing theory. As the interest in crime and legal TV shows that Dzur mentions demonstrates, people have natural curiosity about such matters.

    And in fact, most legislation has little impact on most people. Under the appropriate circumstances, people develop an interest in public issues as a matter of civic responsibility.


  4. The principal reason that most people have little interest in public issues is that they have little power to influence the course of events. At least that’s what rational ignorance theory would have us believe, and it certainly strikes me as plausible. I don’t think we should be interested in curiosity, but should use all reasonable means to ensure that those selected by lot to legislate on our behalf should be motivated to take it seriously. This would suggest the minimum number commensurate with representativity, generous remuneration and, most importantly, a sense of honour and decorum (along with an oath of office) for those privileged to judge on behalf of their fellow citizens.


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