Opinion | Judiciary

Second-guessing jury verdicts undermines confidence in the democratic system

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Long before the jury began to deliberate the fate of three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Ga., one result was certain: the verdict would be condemned by some and celebrated by others, including by many elected public officials. As in the Wisconsin case of Kyle Rittenhouse and numerous high-profile cases going back decades, conflicting assessments of a jury's verdict largely reflect partisan politics and have little to do with law or the facts of the case.  

This propensity across the political spectrum to condemn jury verdicts that do not conform to ideological preferences, and to praise those that do, undermines public confidence in the jury system. This is a problem, particularly at a time when those same public officials and political factions are expressing concerns for the future of our democracy. 

As 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.

Unless a jury blatantly ignores the law or is demonstrably biased or not fairly constituted, public officials who express outrage or delight at a particular jury verdict have neither the authority nor the knowledge to pass judgment. Only the jurors are subjected to voir dire, the process by which lawyers representing the state and the defendant assess whether prospective jurors will hear the evidence without prejudice. Only the jurors sit in the jury box and hear all the evidence and the judge's instructions. And only the jurors hear the views of their peers and deliberate the just result. It is not without reason that judges take great pains to assure that jurors come to their task without bias and perform that task without partisan influence.

Those who condemn jury verdicts invariably claim that an injustice has been done. But the always predictable condemnations and the public unrest they often incite belie the claims. In the Rittenhouse case, President Biden was correct to say that he stands by the jury's verdict, but he contradicted that principled position by expressing his anger and concern. Passing partisan judgment on jury verdicts undermines a democratic system of justice that has served well for centuries. 

James L. Huffman is a professor of law and the former dean of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHu41086899.

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