Huffman: The jury is a political, as well as a judicial, institution

James L. Huffman, professor of law and the former dean of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, OR, writes in The Hill.

Second-guessing jury verdicts undermines confidence in the democratic system

English jurist William Blackstone observed before the founding of the American nation, the jury serves as a popular check on abuses by those who wield the powers of the state: “[The jury] preserves in the hands of the people that share which they ought to have in the administration of public justice and prevents the encroachments of the more powerful and wealthy citizens.”

The jury is thus a political, as well as a judicial, institution — but that does not mean juries engage in politics or should be subjected to political influence and judgment. In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the jury can be either a democratic or an aristocratic institution “that places the real direction of society in the hands of the governed or in a portion of them, and not in those who govern.”

Because juries in America are drawn by lot from the general population, they are democratic but insulated from the bias of public officials and the partisan preferences of shifting majorities.

As the American Bar Association states in a publication on the history of the jury system: “[T]he right to a jury of one’s peers is a corner-stone of American democracy. Along with voting, it’s one of the main ways people take part in the public life of this nation.”

Routine questioning of the legitimacy of duly reached jury verdicts is no less an attack on democracy than is questioning the legitimacy of a duly conducted election. The jury exists to resolve disputes over individual rights and government power, not to serve a partisan agenda. In resolving the dispute in a particular case, the jury functions not as an instrument of the ruling party but rather as a check on the politicization of the administration of justice.

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