Trial by Jury, a Precious Right in Peril

by: Prince, Glover & Hayes Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

The framers of our Constitution drafter a Bill of Rights that established the very things that make America great today. Freedom of expression, religion, and assembly are only a few of the rights we hold so dearly and often take for granted. The right to trial by jury in a civil case (the Seventh Amendment), however, has become a punching bag for many politicians including the chief executive.

Much has been said recently about the need to reform the civil justice system. Proponents argue that such reform is needed to rid the system of “junk lawsuits” and to create a friendlier environment for doctors, health care providers, and businesses to prosper. The response, primarily from lawyers, is that such reform misses the mark because it takes dead aim at the victims of wrongdoing by severely limiting recoveries for catastrophic injuries and, in some cases, access to the courts. All sides of the debate have compelling anecdotal stories which serve only to confuse outsiders which, in my view, has bred considerable apathy and indifference to what is really at stake – the right to trial by a jury of your peers.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist reflected on the importance of the civil jury trial:

“The founders of our nation considered the right of trial by jury in civil cases an important bulwark against tyranny and corruption, a safeguard too precious to be left to the whim of the sovereign. Juries represent the layman’s common sense and thus keep the administration of law in accord with the wishes and feeling of the community.”

Legislation designed to “reform” the civil justice system is a direct assault on your right to trial by jury. For example, laws limiting recovery of damages not only limit a person’s right to full and complete redress in the event of a serious injury or death, but robs the jury of the powers to listen to the evidence in an individual case and render a just verdict – a verdict free from arbitrary legislative constraints borne by special interest, In essence, sponsors of “reform” legislation are trying to take away the function and charge of our jury system by limiting the jury’s ability to fully decide the outcome of a trial. These sponsors seek to tie the hands of citizen jurors by claiming that individual jurors are too ill-equipped or uniformed to decide a case; the sponsors, however, deem these same individuals as “informed” enough to case a vote for their reelection.

Serving on a jury is one of the most significant places a citizen can make a difference in our society. Twelve ordinary citizens are able to determine the course of justice. Twelve ordinary citizens are able to decide what is right and what is wrong. As Patrick Henry state, “Why do we love trial by jury? Because it prevents the hand of oppression from cutting you off.” It was true when he said it, and it holds true today.

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