Jury Duty and Jury Nullification

I recently received a summons to jury duty. The date has been rescheduled and I don’t know if I will actually have to appear. However, this brings to mind the last time I had jury duty.

During voir dire, the judge asked prospective jurors if evidence indicated conviction, would they vote to convict even if they disagreed with the law. Everybody said “yes” except me. What follows is the justification for my answer.

It is the job of the court to see to the law, but it is the job of the jury to see to justice. Columnist Walter Williams gives an example:

“I was summoned for jury duty some years ago, and during voir dire, the attorney asked me whether I could obey the judge’s instructions. I answered, ‘It all depends upon what those instructions are.’ Irritatingly, the judge asked me to explain myself. I explained that if I were on a jury back in the 1850s, and a person was on trial for violating the Fugitive Slave Act by assisting a runaway slave, I would vote for acquittal regardless of the judge’s instructions. The reason is that slavery is unjust and any law supporting it is unjust. Needless to say, I was dismissed from jury duty.” – Walter Williams, 11 July 2007

The judge in my past appearance asked why I said “no.” I explained that, in my opinion, jurors had the right and duty to judge all of the circumstances as well as the evidence. I also mentioned the following which establishes that principle:

John Jay, first Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in Georgia v. Brailsford, 3 U.S. 1 (1794): “The jury has a right to judge both the law as well as the fact in controversy.”

Samuel Chase, Supreme Court Justice and signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in 1804: “The jury has the right to determine both the law and the facts.”

U. S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1902: “The jury has the power to bring a verdict in the teeth of both law and fact.”

Harlan F. Stone, the 12th Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, stated in 1941: “The law itself is on trial quite as much as the cause which is to be decided.”

In 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that the jury has an “unreviewable and irreversible power… to acquit in disregard of the instructions on the law given by the trial judge….” (US vs Dougherty, 473 F 2d 1113, 1139 (1972))

That jurors can rule against both law and evidence is called jury nullification. Jury Nullification, as defined by the US Dictionary of Law is “A sanctioned doctrine of trial proceedings wherein members of a jury disregard either the evidence presented or the instructions of the judge in order to reach a verdict based upon their own consciences. It espouses the concept that jurors should be the judges of both law and fact.”

More recently, Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor supported Jury Nullification. (Source)

The purpose of Jury Nullification is to protect citizens from unjust laws perpetrated by government. It is part of the “checks and balances” of our republic.

Prospective jurors are not likely to hear about this from a trial judge. I was dismissed as a prospective juror.

UPDATE: I reported for jury duty on April 3, 2018. The case was vehicular manslaughter. The judge asked if anyone had a problem with the law. I answered: “I hold to the principle that jurors have the right to judge the law as well as the evidence in the case.” The judge replied, “dismissed.”

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