Monthly Archives: June 2010

On Jury Nullification

This is Swampyank's copy of "The Jury&quo...
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I have jury duty tomorrow morning, so I thought I would share some thoughts on the moral and contractual obligations of a juror:

A trial is, or ought to be, a fact-finding process, conducted in order to determine whether pre-existing legal principles are applicable to a specific case.  It should not be a religious, philosophical, or political discourse – that is, the rules by which guilt or responsibility is determined must be known beforehand.  It is not up to the judge or jury to determine what the law ought to be, only to apply it to the established facts.  If the law was determined rather than applied at trial, it would be impossible for anyone to obey it.  Furthermore, a just legal system should be uniform – people must have assurance that outcomes will not depend on the particular judge and juror they stand before.

However, while it is not the job of the juror to determine whether the law is just, it is his moral responsibility to treat other men justly.  Someone who is hired to be a repo agent may not have a contractual obligation to determine whether the collateral he collects is for debts which are legitimately are in default, but he has a moral obligation to refuse his assignments if he suspects that he’s seizing legitimate property.  If he refuses assignments based on tenuous grounds, he may justly be fired, but if he has some certainty that he’s seizing legitimate property, he becomes as much a thief as his employer.  Likewise with the juror.

One criticism of jury nullification is that a jury is not neither qualified to judge the law nor does it have any legitimacy in doing so.  And this is certainly true as a matter of law.  A juror who disagrees with the practical implementation of the moral principles behind a law ought to defer to the established process.  He can always exercise his disagreement and try to effect change in his role as a private citizen.

But, the situation is different when a juror disagrees with the moral principles behind a law.  A law based on incorrect moral principles is inherently unjust, regardless of the facts of the case.  The conviction of anyone based on such as law is necessarily an act of aggression.  Any participation in the process, even solely in the function of determining the facts, is an immoral act.  No judge can honestly ask a juror to breach his integrity, or blame him for refusing to do so.    Everyone, regardless of his role, has a personal moral obligation to treat others justly and refrain from willingly participating in injustice.

What is a moral juror to do then?  He should refuse to serve if he believes that the principles of a law are inherently unjust.  By doing so, he does not undermine the legal process, since another juror can be substituted, nor does he violate his own integrity.  For example, a juror exceeds his role if he refuses to convict because he thinks that the punishment for an action is too harsh, but he acts properly if he refuses to serve because he does not believe the act being prosecuted to constitute an act of coercion at all.

In the special case that the judge is unable to find enough jurors who accept the morality of the law, has two choices:  he may either require the charges to be dropped, or he may offer the dissenting jurors to serve anyway.  If they do so, they cannot be blamed for acquitting the defendant based on their judgment of the law, in addition to their judgment of the facts.  However, the possibility of them changing their minds after hearing the evidence remains.  Presumably, as long as the law is consistent with the basic moral principles of citizens qualified to serve on the jury, it should not be difficulty to find sufficient jurors.

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