The Jury Is Not Out Yet On Citizen Jurors

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Anna Massoglia Policy Researcher
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A recent Investor’s Business Daily op-ed by Yuri Vanetik argued that the United States should “scrap the existing juror selection system” to make way for panels of so-called “professional jurors,” salaried employees or contractors that would take the place of juries. Claiming that juries composed of American citizens are ill-prepared to handle complex issues in the modern world, Vanetik overlooks the large body of research demonstrating the effectiveness of those juries and fails to appreciate the fundamental role of citizen jurors in the United States.

System-wide reform should not be undertaken lightly, especially when it entails amending the U.S. Constitution and uprooting the very principles on which the nation was founded. Although proposals for reforms vary along ideological and intellectual axes, the general consensus is that the system is indeed salvageable and our constitutional rights are worth preserving.

Vanetik’s unsubstantiated sullying of citizen juries with baseless assertions leads one to question the objectivity of Vanetik’s grievances—especially when the views expressed seem strikingly at odds with his other philosophies.

Just weeks before, Vanetik wrote that America’s “political institutions too often favor a small class of privileged elites, at the expense of average citizens.” Taking the jury box out of the hands of citizens and placing it in under the power of the very elites Vanetik slams seems incompatible with his declaration the very integrity of the system depends on the rejection of elites who are not “attuned to the concerns of ordinary citizens.” If his rallying cry against the system of representative citizen juries seems less like an altruistic call for reform and more of a personal vendetta, perhaps it is in part a response to Vanetik’s own recent entanglements with juries.

Dubbing Vanetik an “artful puppeteer” who masterminded a scam to swindle thousands for his own personal enrichment, the court explained that a jury “had little trouble” deciding Vanetik should be personally liable for his misdeeds. Not only did the jury call for a substantial seven figure amount in damages, the court agreed that the damages were reasonable and flatly denied Vanetik’s motion for a new trial or judgement notwithstanding the verdict in light of the reprehensibility of his conduct and the “brazen nature” of his “trickery and deceit.”  Even Vanetik’s lawyer in that matter, Richard Weed, was recently criminally convicted of fraud and sentenced to 5 years in jail on top of a hefty fine. Surely this may factor into Vanetik’s bitterness with the jury system as it stands.

The professionalization of juries not only has the potential to render panels vulnerable to the influence of anyone with vested interest in the outcome of cases and exposes them to an increased risk of becoming desensitized or losing touch with the interests of society at large, it also eliminates one of the primary means of civic engagement and jeopardizes public confidence in the integrity of the system.

The Founding Fathers had a deep and abiding faith in the American public and ensured that citizens had a hand in the courtroom.  Abolishing the rights of citizens at large to participate in juries and placing that power under the control small self-selected segment of society would inevitably result in a consequential loss of independence from the system. This essentially negates the right to a jury of one’s peers, giving way to the reality into a jury of government employees. No longer would justice be delivered through the votes of fellow citizens, but upon the approval of a small self-selected segment of society’s elite—the very thing Vanetik has otherwise condemned.

Citizen jurors need not fully understand each facet and inner working of the legal system. Instead, citizens are chosen indiscriminately and temporarily vested with a decision-making role in the justice system to examine a case through the impartial eyes of a lay person, acting as an effective check on lawyers and judges alike.

The jury is by no means the only nor the final voice in determining the outcome of legal disputes. Even in cases that do contain points of contention between a judge and jury, the judge retains discretion to adjust or completely reject a jury’s determination when warranted. In fact, judges have an obligation to review damage awards and adjust them if the judge deems them to be excessive or unwarranted. A judge may even choose to override an “unreasonable” jury or grant a new trial when justified under the circumstances. It is in this way that the interlocking components of the system act as checks on each other.

Moreover, a growing body of empirical research shows that juries are competent and come to similar conclusions in a preponderance of cases. Most lines of empirical inquiry into the competence of juries in the United States reach favorable conclusions, affirming that a substantial majority of jury verdicts are solidly grounded in evidence.

The justice system is subject to a number of shortcomings in need of reform, but abolishing the right to a “jury of our peers” would exchange an imperfect system for another that is even more dangerously flawed. Moreover, it is unclear—and in many instances unlikely—that abandoning citizen jurors for professionals would solve any of the current system’s flaws much less the issues raised by Vanetik when remedies for excessive damages as well as unreasonable verdicts are already built in to the system as it currently exists.

A defining institution of the justice system is that it enables society to be judged by society, placing decision-making power in the hands of the governed rather than surrendering it to the authority the government. Applying these principles to other aspects of society presents a bleak picture. If an indiscriminately selected sample of American citizens is not competent to vote on the outcome of a single case, it seems hard to justify entrusting those same citizens with deciding the next leader of the country.

Proposed reforms need to be studied to determine what policies best preserve checks and balances, uphold the rule of law, and ensure the delivery of justice. A more nuanced understanding of how the current jury system—and the justice system as a whole—is necessary to ensure that the system continues to be responsive to the needs of society. Although continued improvements to the system can and should be made, a jury composed of fellow citizens is the fairest method of safeguarding our freedom, promoting justice, and ultimately protecting democracy.

Massoglia is a public policy professional, researcher, and writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter.