In the United States, the Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to trial by jury, and the Seventh Amendment allows for a jury trial in certain civil contexts. But with the lack of passion for jury service, and fewer and fewer cases going to trial in general, are we sprinting down the track away from jury service altogether? The highly publicized trial of South African Olympic runner, Oscar Pistorius, shone brightly as an example of a country that has no trial by jury. In South Africa, criminal trials are heard by a judge who renders the verdict after conferring with two assessors with all three having equal votes on the verdict. South Africa abolished the jury system in 1969 citing reasons such as expansive powers of the Minister of Justice, reluctance of the public to serve on juries, widespread exemptions leaving few competent jury candidates, and, most importantly in my mind, fears of racial prejudice among jury members. The United States jury system could be said to suffer from at least three of the reasons cited for the abolishing of trial by jury in South Africa.
This nation has had its share of issues concerning race relations and with the recent events like the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and the Trayvon Martin case, and it seems we may not let juries crawl out from under the rock of race issues anytime soon. The nationwide attitude towards jury service is overwhelmingly negative and many potential jurors would rather use their intellect to come up with ways to avoid the civic duty rather than to help decide a criminal or civil matter. And while the list of exemptions from jury service does not deplete the pool to alarming numbers, it does tend to discount a very large number of highly qualified jurors in terms of life experience, race, socio-economic background, and intelligence. I would also argue that the increasing desire to take civil cases deemed “too complex” out of the hands of the juries has expanded the powers of judges and could be used as an advantage by businesses and those who are in court often as a way around having to convince six or twelve laymen.
There are pros and cons to having a jury or a judge decide a case. The jury is made up of “men and women of the streets” who make decisions based on their experiences and common sense. While a judge may have some of the same experiences, and hopefully some common sense, he or she also knows the law inside and out. This could allow a judge to take emotion out of her decision, something that a juror is less likely to be able to do. Jurors could be swayed in one direction not only by their emotions, but also by the fame of a plaintiff or defendant. On the other hand, if you take juries out the equation you also take away the possibility for jurors to use common sense to decide a case rather than focusing on unwieldy legal concepts manufactured by legislators. With no jury trial there can also be no jury nullification, and while its occurrence is most likely less than once in a blue moon, a judge does not necessarily have the same luxury of ignoring the letter of the law to inflict a different kind of justice.
While many U.S. citizens could come up with an arm’s length list of things they would rather do than serve on a jury, I believe the vast majority would also feel cheated if they did not have the option of having a group of their peers decide their fate in a civil or criminal matter. Perhaps we need to slow down and reevaluate what we value more—the opportunity to be heard by a jury of our peers, or the ability to palm off the baton of the legal system on someone else to sort out. I think we should slow down to a jog and figure out ways to improve jury service and thereby the justice system overall.