Jury Trials ARE Democracy

No matter what the US Chamber of Commerce or other corporate front groups want you to believe, jury trials are an essential part of American democracy, and they need to be protected. A jury is a group of average Americans, selected almost at random, to represent the majority. When they weigh the facts of a case and cast their vote, they are performing one of the central liberties that generations of Americans have fought and died to preserve.

Injury Victims Have Always Been Given Compensation

Since the earliest codes of law that we know, victims have been entitled to compensation for injury caused by another person’s neglect or misconduct. Consider the provisions in the Code of Hammurabi (about 1770 BC) for accidental injury, which include: “If during a quarrel one man strike another and wound him, then he shall swear, “I did not injure him wittingly,” and pay the physicians.”

The Code of Hammurabi also establishes that if a person knows about a risk, but does not work to prevent it or pay compensation: “If an ox be a goring ox, and it shown that he is a gorer, and he do not bind his horns, or fasten the ox up, and the ox gore a free-born man and kill him, the owner shall pay one-half a mina in money.”

The Code also includes provisions for medical malpractice, vehicle accidents in boats and ferries, and faulty home construction.

All the compensations set in the Code of Hammurabi were declared by the king. They were specific damages set by law.

Jury Trials and Democracy

Jury trials have their deepest roots in the earliest democracies, in Athens and in Rome. There, groups of people were selected to judge the merits of cases against citizens. These historic examples informed the founding fathers who enshrined the jury in our Constitution.

Our jury trials trace their roots directly to Medieval England, where King Henry II established in 1166 boards of twelve “free and lawful men” to determine ownership of contested property. These boards would gradually evolve into our modern juries.

By the 18th century, juries had become the cornerstone of justice in England. Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), said, “a competent number of sensible and upright jurymen, chosen by lot from among those of middle rank, will be found the best investigators of truth, and the surest guardians of public justice.”

Jury Trials and the Founding of America

Jury trials were so important to members of the American colonies that they played a central role in inspiring the American Revolution. Juries courageously stood up against the corrupt laws of the British government. In the famous case of John Peter Zenger, a publisher accused of printing “seditious libels.” Although instructed to convict Zenger if he published the accused stories, the jury returned a verdict of not-guilty because they asserted he had published the truth.

In his commentary on the Stamp Act (1765), John Adams singled out the admiralty courts as the Act’s “most grievous innovation.” “In these courts,” he said, “one judge presides alone! No juries have any concern there!”

In the Declaration of Independence, members of the Continental Congress noted several problems with justice being handed down by King George III. They note that they are rebelling because he has “[deprived] us, in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury.” They also note that “He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of the offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” They recognize that a judge paid by one side cannot be impartial in the dispute.

And once the colonies won their independence, they enshrined the right to a jury trial in the founding documents of the United States. The 7th Amendment to the US Constitution states: “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.” The right to trial by jury is also guaranteed in every state constitution in the US.

The Current Threat to Jury Trials

With the right to trial by jury so important to the founding of the United States, it seems absurd that anyone would suggest it be brushed aside, but that’s exactly what’s happening. US District Judge William G. Young of Massachusetts even went so far as to declare, “The American jury system is dying.”

Lobbying groups paid by the US Chamber of Commerce and other corporate interests are trying to take away your right to a jury trial. One of their most common tactics is to propose a cap on damages that can be awarded by a jury. A trial by jury includes the right to have your jury award your damages, not have them be set by an authoritarian code.

Another common tactic is to try to force such high levels of evidence requirements that it is too expensive to file a case, let alone bring it to trial. This combines with increased discretion given to judges for summary judgments and dismissal of cases before they can get to trial before a jury.

Finally, corporations now try to force people to sign arbitration agreements. These agreements mean that people cannot pursue compensation by trial, but must allow their case to be decided before an arbitrator who is beholden to the corporation for future business.

Don’t let corporations crown themselves king. Protect your basic rights. Join the Fight to preserve the jury trial.