The Sixth Amendment Right to a Jury Trial: What's the big deal?
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
"Juries are composed of people who are not smart enough to get out of jury duty." We've all heard that. But why do we think that way? What were our forefathers trying to protect with the right to a trial by jury?
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law; and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor; and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense."
History of the Jury Trial
Jury trials were guaranteed by the Magna Carta in 1215. After years of various monarchs disregarding this right, the British Bill of Rights guaranteed it in 1689. However, King George consistently denied this right to American colonists, who he would order shipped back to England to stand trial before judges who applied the law as he told them to apply it. In fact, this is one of the main reasons for the American Revolution. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson called out King George, listing several human rights violations he was committing against the American colonists, including "depriving us in many cases of the benefits of trial by jury" and "transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses..."
Although they disagreed on many things, all of our forefathers agreed on the importance of the right to trial by jury in criminal cases:
Alexander Hamilton: “The friends and adversaries of the plan of the Convention, if they agree in nothing else, concur at least in the value they set upon trial by jury; or if there is any difference between them it consists in this: the former regard it as a valuable safeguard to liberty; the latter represent it as the very palladium of free government.”
James Madison: “Trial by jury is essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature.”
Patrick Henry: “Trial by jury is the best appendage of freedom. I hope that we shall never be induced to part with that excellent mode of trial.”
Richard Henry Lee: “The right to trial by jury is a fundamental right of free and enlightened people and an essential part of a free government.”
Thomas Jefferson: "I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."
Fast forward to today. Why are criminal defense lawyers afraid of trying their cases to jurors? Why do American citizens consider jury service unworthy of their time and attention? Actually, the answer is quite simple. Like most humans do from time to time, we have forgotten where we came from and we have lost an understanding of where we could be if we keep forgetting.
The ability of the people - not the government, but the people - to hold the government to its burden in criminal cases and to have the ability to acquit an accused person freely, with no retribution at all, is special and sacred and worthy of respect and protection. In some countries, the government is accuser, judge, and executioner all in one. Yes, trials may be more efficient in those countries. But they are also less just. And the citizens in those countries are much less free.
I am a lawyer. I know I will probably never have the privilege of sitting on a jury. But I hope I can persuade someone, anyone, that jury service is just that - a privilege. It is, in my opinion, one of the highest honors as an American - to hold the government accountable to its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, to be fair and impartial in listening to the evidence and deciding a verdict, and to follow the law, applying it not just to the accused, but also, no, especially, to the government.
In a free society, the law must apply to everyone the same, and the Constitution is the most supreme of all those laws - the rights of the people to have freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom from self-incrimination, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, freedom from excessive bail, freedom from cruel and unusual punishments, and freedom to have their cases decided by their peers - must be recognized and preserved if we are to remain free. This is our republic, as Benjamin Franklin said, if we can keep it. Not if the government can keep it. But if we - we, the people - can keep it. In my humblest opinion, trial by jury is the best way to do that.