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History Of Jury Essay, Research Paper
THE RIGHT OF JURIES
TO JUDGE OF THE JUSTICE OF LAWS
For more than six hundred years-that is, since Magna Carta, in 1215–there has been no clearer principle of
English or American constitutional law, than that, in criminal cases, it is not only the right and duty of juries
to judge what are the facts, what is the law, and what was the moral intent of the accused; but that it is also
their light, and their primary and paramount duty, to judge the justice of the law, and to hold all
laws invalid, that are, in their opinion, unjust or oppressive, and all persons guiltless in violating, or
resisting the execution of, such law.
Unless such be the right and duty of jurors, it is plain that, instead of juries being a “palladium of liberty”-a
barrier against the tyranny and oppression of the government-they are really mere tools in its hands, for
carrying into execution any injustice and oppression it may desire to have executed.
But for their right to judge the law, and the justice of the law, juries would be no protection to an accused
person, even as to matters Of fact; for, if the government can dictate to a jury any law whatever, in a
criminal case, it can certainly dictate to them the laws of evidence. That is, it can dictate what evidence is
admissible, and what inadmissible, and also what force or weight is to be given to the evidence
admitted. And if the government can thus dictate to a jury the laws of evidence, it can not only make it
necessary for them to convict on a partial exhibition of the evidence rightfully pertaining to the case, but it can
even require them to convict on any evidence whatever that it pleases to offer them.
That the rights and duties of jurors must necessarily be such as are here claimed for them, will be evident
when it is considered what the trial by jury is, and what is its object.
“The trial by jury,” then, is a “trial by the country”-that is, by the people- as distinguished from a trial
by the government.
It was anciently called “trial per pais”-that is, “trial by the country.” And now, in every criminal trial, the
jury are told that the accused “has, for trial, put himself upon the country; which country you (the jury)
The object of this trial “by the country,” or by the people, in preference to a trial by the government, is to
guard against every species of oppression by the government. In order to effect this end, it is indispensable
that the people, or “the country,” judge and determine their own liberties against the government; instead of
the government’s judging of and determining its own powers over the people.
If the government may decide who may, and who may not, be jurors, it will of course select only its
partisans, and those friendly to its measures. It may not only prescribe who may, and who may not, be
eligible to be drawn as jurors; but is may also question each person drawn as a juror, as to his sentiments in
regard to the particular law involved in each trial, before suffering him to be sworn on the panel; and exclude
him if he be found unfavorable to the maintenance of such a law.
So, also, if the government may dictate to the jury what laws they are to enforce, it is no longer a “trial
by the country,” but a trial by the government; because the jury then try the accused, not by any standard of
their own-not by their own judgments of their rightful liberties-but by a standard dictated to them by the
government. And the standard, thus dictated by the government, becomes the measure of the people’s
liberties. If the government dictate the standard of trial, it of course dictates the results of the trial. And such a
trial is no trial by the country, but only a trial by the government; and in it the government determines what
are its own powers over the people, instead of the people’s determining what are their own liberties against
the government. In short, if the jury have no right to judge of the justice of a law of the government, they
plainly can do nothing to protect the people against the oppressions of the government; for there are no
oppressions which the government may not authorize by law.
The jury are also to judge whether the laws are rightly expounded to them by the court. Unless they judge on
this point, they do nothing to protect their liberties against the oppressions that are capable of being practiced
under cover of a corrupt exposition of the laws. If the judiciary can authoritatively dictate to a jury any
exposition of the law, they can dictate to them the law itself, and such laws as they please; because laws are,
in practice, one thing or another, according as they are expounded.
They must also judge whether there really be any such law, (be it good or bad,) as the accused is charged
with having transgressed. Unless they judge on this point, the people are liable to have their liberties taken
from them by brute force, without any law at all.
The jury must also judge of the laws of evidence. If the government can dictate to the jury the laws of
evidence, it can not only shut out any evidence it pleases, tending to vindicate the accused, but it can require
that any evidence whatever, that it pleases to offer, be held as conclusive proof of any offense whatever
which the government chooses to allege.
It is manifest, therefore, that the jury must judge of and try the whole case, and every part and parcel of the
case, free of any dictation or authority on the part of the government. They must judge of the existence of the
law; of the true exposition of the law; of the justice of the law; and of the admissibility of and weight of
all the evidence offered; otherwise the government will have everything its own way; the jury will be mere
puppets in the hands of the government; and the trial will be, in reality, a trial by the government, and not a
“trial by the country.” By such trials the government will determine its own powers over the people, instead
of the people’s determining their own liberties against the government; and it will be an entire delusion to talk,
as for centuries we have done, of the trial by the jury, as a “palladium of liberty,” or as any protection to the
people against the oppression and tyranny of the government.
The question, then, between trial by jury, as thus described, and trial by the government, is simply a question
between liberty and despotism. The authority to judge what are the powers of the government, and what are
the liberties of the people, must necessarily be vested in one or the other of the parties themselves-the
government, or the people; because there is no third party to whom it can be entrusted. If the authority be
vested in the government, the government is absolute, and the people have no liberties except such as the
government sees fit to indulge them with. If, on the other hand, that authority be vested in the people, then
the people have all liberties, (as against the government,) except such as substantially the whole people
(through a jury) choose to disclaim; and the government can exercise no power except such as substantially
the whole people (through a jury) consent that it may exercise.
* To show that this supposition is not an extravagant one, it may be mentioned that courts have repeatedly
questioned jurors to ascertain whether they were prejudiced against the government-that is, whether they
were in favor of, or opposed to, such laws of the government as were to be put in issue in the then pending
trial. This was done (in 1851) in the United States District Court of- the District of Massachusetts, by Peleg
Sprague, the United Slates district judge, in impaneling three several juries for the trials of Scott, Hayden,
and Morris, charged with having aided in the rescue of fugitive slave from the custody of the United States
deputy Marshall. This judge caused the following question to be propounded to all the jurors separately; and
those who answered unfavorably for- the purposes of government, were excluded from the panel. “Do you
hold any opinions upon the subject of the Fugitive Slave Law, so called, which will induce you to refuse to
convict a person indicted under it, if the facts set forth in the indictment, and contesting the offense, are
proved against him, and the court direct you that the law is constitutional!”
The reason of this question was, that “the Fugitive Slave Law, so called,” was so obnoxious to a large
portion of the people, as to render a conviction under it hopeless, if the jurors were taken indiscriminately
from among the people.
A similar was soon afterwards propounded to the persons drawn as jurors in the United States District
Court for the District of Massachusetts, by Benjamin R. Curtis, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of
the United States, in impaneling a jury for the trial of the aforesaid Morris on the charge before mentioned;
and those who did not answer the question favorably for the government were again excluded from the panel.
It has also been an habitual practice with the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in impaneling juries for the
trial of capital offenses, to inquire of the persons drawn as jurors whether they had any conscientious
scruples against finding verdicts of guilty in such cases; that is, whether they had any conscientious scruples
against sustaining the law prescribing death as the punishment of the crime to be tried; and to exclude from
the panel all who answered in the affirmative.
The only principle upon which these questions arc asked, is this-that no man shall be allowed to serve as
juror, unless he be ready to enforce any enactment of the government, however cruel or tyrannical it may be.
What is such a jury good for, as a protection against the tyranny of the government! A jury like that is
palpably nothing but a mere tool of oppression in the hands of the government. A trial by such a jury is really
a trial by the government itself-and not a trial by the country-because it is a trial only by men specially selected
by the government for their readiness to enforce its own tyrannical measures.
If that be the true principle of the trial by jury, the trial is utterly worthless as a security to liberty. The Czar
might, with perfect safety to his authority, introduce the trial by jury into Russia, if he could but be
permitted(i to select his jurors from those whomever ready to maintain his laws, without regard to their
The example is sufficient to show that the very pith of the trial by jury, as a safeguard to liberty, consists in
the jurors being taken indiscriminately from the whole people, and in their- right to hold invalid all laws
which they think unjust.
The force and justice of the preceding argument cannot be evaded by saying that the government is chosen by
the people; that, in theory, it represents the people; that it is designed to do the will of the people; that its
members are all sworn to observe the fundamental or constitutional law instituted by the people; that its acts
are therefore entitled to be considered the acts of the people; and that to allow a jury, representing the people,
to invalidate the acts of government, would therefore be arraying the people against themselves.
There are two answers to such an argument.
One answer is, that, in a representative government, there is no absurdity or contradiction, nor any arraying
of the people against themselves, in requiring that the statutes or enactments of the government shall pass the
ordeal of any number of separate tribunals, before it shall be determined that they are to have the force of
Our American constitutions have provided five of these separate tribunals, to wit, representatives, senate,
executive, jury, and judges; and have made it necessary that each enactment shall pass the ordeal of all these
separate tribunals, before its authority can be established by the punishment of those who choose to
transgress it. And there is no more absurdity or inconsistency in making a jury one of these several tribunals,
than there is in making the representatives, or ~t ~e senate, or the executive, or the judges, one of them. There
is no more absurdity in giving a jury the veto upon the laws, than there is in giving a veto to each of these
other tribunals. The people are no more arrayed against themselves, when a jury puts its veto upon a statute,
which the other tribunals have sanctioned, than they are when the same veto is exercised by the
representatives, the senate, the executive, or the judges.
But another answer to the argument that the people are arrayed against themselves, when a jury hold an
enactment of the government invalid, is, that the government, and all the departments of government, are
merely the servants and agents of the people; not interested with arbitrary or absolute authority to bind the
people, but required to submit all their enactments to the judgment of a tribunal more fairly representing the
whole people, before they carry them into execution, by punishing any individual for transgressing them. If
the government were not thus required to submit their enactments to the judgment of “the country,” before
executing them upon individuals-if, in other words, the people had reserved to themselves no veto upon the
acts of government, the government, instead of being a mere servant and agent of the people, would be an
absolute despot over the people. It would have all power in its own hands; because the power to punish
carries all other powers with it. A power that can, of itself, and by its own authority, punish disobedience,
can compel obedience and submission, and is above all responsibility for the character of its laws. In short, it
is a despotism.
And it is of no consequence to inquire how a government came by this power to punish, whether by
prescription, by inheritance, by usurpation, or by delegation of the people? If it have now but got it, the
government is absolute.
* – The executive has a qualified veto upon the passage of laws, in most of our governments, and an absolute veto, in all of
them, upon the execution of any laws which he deems unconstitutional; because his oath to support the constitution (as he
understands it) forbids him to execute any law that he deems unconstitutional.
It is plain, therefore, that if the people have invested the government with power to make laws that absolutely
bind the people, and to punish the people for transgressing those laws, the people have surrendered their
liberties unreservedly into the hands of the government.
It is of no avail to say, in answer to this view of the case, that in surrendering their liberties into the hands of
government, the people took an oath from the government, that it would exercise its power within certain
constitutional limits; for when did oaths ever restrain a government that was otherwise unrestrained? Or when
did a government fail to determine that all its acts were within the constitutional and authorized limits of its
power, if it were permitted to determine that question for itself.
Neither is it of any avail to say, that, if the government abuse its power, and enact unjust and oppressive
laws, the government may be changed by the influence of discussion, and the exercise of the right of suffrage
(voting). Discussion can do nothing to prevent the enactment, or procure the repeal, of unjust laws, unless it
be understood that the discussion is to be followed by resistance. Tyrants care nothing for discussions that
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