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Putting aside the compulsory nature of jury duty (and its implications on the objectivity of jurors), is a trial by jury a valid form of delivering justice?

Are judges, who are supposedly well versed in law and legal procedure, more appropriate determinants of guilt than a group of individuals?

asked Dec 01 '11 at 16:01

JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

JK Gregg ♦

The question asks whether juries are "a valid form of delivering justice." What makes a form of delivering justice valid? It is valid if it actually delivers justice. Any form is valid, as long as it provides just results.

However, no legal system is guaranteed to always reach a just result. Thus, the question really should be "which form leads to just results the most consistently?" I do not believe it is clear that the jury system (at least in its present form) reaches a just result as often as judges.

Argument for juries include (with my interpretations added in brackets):

(1) Collective group decisions are per se better than individuals' decisions.

a. juries are democratic, reflecting the conscience of the community, while judges reflect only their own judgments; [i.e. collective judgment good, individual judgment bad]

b. jurors bring diverse backgrounds to deliberations which will help them "see" the case differently, while a judge has only his own knowledge framework to go off of; groups can synergistically combine their diverse viewpoints, creating wisdom that is greater than the sum of its parts; [i.e. knowledge is subjective and your means of grasping it is determined by your background (race, gender, etc)]

c. if a judge makes a mistake in reasoning there is no one to correct him, if one juror makes such a mistake there are eleven people who have the chance to correct him; [true, but see point (2) of arguments against]

d. if a judge is biased, there is no one to counteract his bias, while one biased person on a jury is counterbalanced by eleven other persons; [true, but see point (2) of arguments against]

(2) Juries are a check on tyranny.

a. it is harder to convince twelve persons of guilt than it is to convince one person of guilt, and thus harder to falsely convict someone; [unless the twelve persons are gullible or irrational and the one person is rational]

b. a judge is a government official, while jurors are independent citizens; [i.e. government officials cannot be trusted]

c. judges, as institutional repeat players, are easier to corrupt than juries.

[objectivists tend to support the second set of rationales more than the first set, but the first set of rationales seems more widespread in the general population]

I am not convinced, however that juries provide more just results than judges—at least not in every type of case. A few arguments against juries include:

(1) Groups often come to poorer results than individuals; consider the boards of directors portrayed in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; consider the phenomena of group think and social conformity; consider how uncommon common sense actually is, and that the intelligence and training of a judge will exceed that of the average juror (and likely that of even the top percentile of jurors).

(2) a judge provides written reasons for his judgment, while a jury provides a judgment only—the jury's decision is a black box which cannot be penetrated. If a judge is biased, then we can detect this and take appropriate action to remove him because we have a record of his judgments and the reasons for them. If a jury is biased, there is nothing we can do about it. If a judge makes a mistake, then it can be reviewed on appeal. If a jury makes a mistake, it is essentially unreviewable. I do not believe that a judge is much more likely to make a mistake or be biased than a jury (as jury proponents claim), but even if he were, I believe the black box nature of the jury decision more than outweighs whatever disparity in frequency of mistake/bias may exist. Less frequent but uncorrectable mistakes are worse than more frequent but correctable mistakes.

(3) the check-on-tyranny justification for juries only applies in criminal trials. Civil trials, which in a proper society would be much more frequent than criminal trials, involve a dispute between two parties about whether one violated the rights of the other. These disputes do not benefit from the fact that a juror is not a government official, while a judge is—the government is not bringing the charges.

Ultimately, neither juries nor judges are undisputedly more likely than the other to come to just results--either form of reaching judgments has its flaws. I believe that judges are currently better, but that the jury system could be reformed in a manner that would make it better. The important point is that what matters is what judgment is reached, not who reached it.

answered Dec 02 '11 at 12:53

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Dec 02 '11 at 13:30

Trial by jury is normally regarded as a right of defendants in criminal cases, which they are free to waive if they so choose. Most criminal defendants probably have far more confidence in the common sense and understanding of their peers than in the judgements of government magistrates.

Furthermore, in all U.S. jurisdictions that I know of, juries are restricted to judging the facts of the case only, not the fairness of the law. Their job is to decide whether or not the law was violated, not to set aside the law in cases where they may consider the law to be fundamentally unfair, although there apparently is serious legal authority for the view that a defendant in a criminal case is not receiving a fair trial unless the jury is allowed to judge the fairness of the law as well as the purely factual issues. Refer to the articles titled, "Jury nullification" and "Jury," on Wikipedia.

answered Dec 02 '11 at 02:30

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

The division between law and fact is largely theoretical. The judge instructs the jury in the law, but then the jury goes into the deliberation room and decides the case however they choose. Do they follow the law? We do not know. They do not give us reasons for their decision. They merely tell us their verdict. In some jurisdictions the judge does not even give the jury a written copy of the jury instructions--they are required to try to remember dozens of lines of dense legal language as it is read to them. Even if they do remember, understanding the instructions is often difficult.

(Dec 02 '11 at 13:02) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Take a look at this jury instruction (scroll to the very bottom of the page), and ask yourself whether untrained jurors without a written copy to scrutinize could understand it. Furthermore, even if jurors do understand the instruction, the law is still often left in their hands. For example, whether an act was "negligent" is considered a question of fact for the jury, despite the jury having no theoretical understanding of negligence or the law of torts. They just decide (on what basis we do not know) who they think should win.

(Dec 02 '11 at 13:23) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

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Asked: Dec 01 '11 at 16:01

Seen: 2,111 times

Last updated: Dec 02 '11 at 13:30