Many believe that juries are capricious and unfair and that they ignore the law when reaching their verdicts. Often, these same people believe that a judge would do a better job of objectively viewing the facts of the case and applying the law to the facts. They argue that juror unfairness stems from jurors not having any legal training, and that without the necessary legal training they are unfit to pass judgment upon the parties to a lawsuit. However, this argument begs the question of what really makes a judge fairer than a lay juror?
While juries may be capricious and unfair from some people’s point of view, the critical question is what would cause a six or twelve member group to be more likely to reach an unfair result than a single person would? Certainly, juries may have used their power to do whatever they wished in the past, sometimes reaching unfair or immoral verdicts, but, judges who preside over bench trials have equally handed down unfair and arbitrary decisions. Because juries are typically comprised of people with multiple points of view, their inherent diversity makes it intrinsically harder for the group to reach a consensus than for a single person unilaterally to reach a conclusion. There is nothing unique about judges that make them fundamentally fairer than jurors. All judges, just like jurors, are creatures of their own beliefs, education, and life experiences. No structures exist to limit a judge from exercising his own brand of justice in a bench trial, other than an unjustly adjudicated party having the ability to appeal the unjust decision, just as he can do in a jury trial. But, there is a structure in place to rein in juries which may have gone overboard in one direction or another. Judges can modify jury verdicts to be “more fair” by using tools like remittitur and additur.
People sometimes accuse juries of ignoring the law when they criticize a jury verdict with which they personally do not agree. However, jurors often will ask the judge for clarifications on their jury instructions when deciding tough verdicts in cases that so often make the news. It is not the fault of the jury when they are incorrectly instructed on the law. It is the parties to the case who request the judge to instruct the jury with their self-interested interpretations of the law before sending the jury to deliberate, and it is the judge who ultimately decides what legal instructions to provide the jury. If the judge cannot correctly instruct the jury on the law, causing the jury to “incorrectly” decide the case, then the judge would not be any more likely to have applied the law himself if he was the one who made the ultimate decision.
After all, juries are not supposed to be experts on the law. Juries are supposed to decide what facts are true and what evidence is credible. Some may attack juries for not being objective, or being biased, when interpreting the facts. Those complaints of subjectivity and bias are just as easily leveled at judges. A six or twelve member jury will bring more perspectives to their deliberations than an individual judge will. Many people believe the jury process is flawed because some juries are perceived as homogenous groups responsible for verdicts with which they disagree. But, a single judge would be at least as susceptible, if not more so, to bias and subjectivity, and his is most certainly a singular point of view.
Sometimes, people ridicule juries by saying only stupid, weak minded people are selected by lawyers to serve on the jury. If that is true, then the parties to a lawsuit should not complain when “simple people make mistakes” deciding their case because it is their own attorney who has caused the problem. Intelligent people are just as likely to be called to jury duty as ignorant people, and if it is true that intelligent people are stricken from panels more frequently than weak minded people, then litigants only have themselves to blame.