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Understanding the importance of the jury in civil trials, Part 2

The United States has a long tradition of respecting the right to have a jury of peers participate in resolving disputes. Few other countries look to juries to decide facts, relying on other systems involving government authorities to decide the fate of people in criminal and civil cases. In the last post we discussed the foundation of our jury system in civil cases in the United States. Here, we will discuss the importance of the jury in preserving freedom and democracy.

Controlling Special Interests And Partisan Politics In The Jury Room

The founders believed that the right to a jury was indispensable. As we mentioned in the last post, partisan politics often create strife in the election process. Special interests have a strong voice in state legislatures and Congress. New laws are frequently enacted in a knee-jerk response to a single event to apply blanket restrictions or limits on the freedom of the people based upon a single event, without regard for the unique facts of that event, leading to unintended consequences under different facts in a future case.

Our jury system acts as a check and balance that involves the voice of ordinary citizens applying common sense to determine the facts of each individual case. Lawyers interview potential jurors in a process called voir dire to root out biases and prejudices, thereby reducing the voice of partisan politics and special interests. The fair and impartial jury process allows for the peaceful resolution of complex disputes - based upon the unique facts of the individual dispute. The framers felt that juries are vital in placing a check on the arbitrary and oppressive power of the sovereign - or a single judge. To that end, the federal and state civil jury trial right limits the power of the court to ignore the jury's findings of fact.

Individual Justice Is Not Served Through One-Size-Fits All Laws

Imagine being selected as a panelist on a civil jury trial (or reflect upon your experience if you have served on a civil jury). Would you feel it is right to have a judge, or legislature, overturn the decisions you have made in resolving the civil dispute? Moreover, lawmakers frequently look to limit, reduce or eliminate decisions that juries should make in advance through tort reform. For example, caps placed on damages mean that an arbitrary figure has been selected to compensate the injured before any consideration of the actual facts on damages can be presented, thus limiting the independence of the jury.

One-sized-fits-all solutions created without regard for the facts of an individual legal dispute can hardly serve justice in resolving the problem. Limiting the role of the jury in advance, based on special interests and partisan politics, creates real exemptions to justice for individuals who have been harmed by another. The right to a fair and impartial jury of peers remains essential to making a harmed individual whole again in the judicial process.

Sources: National Constitutional Center, "Amendment VII, Jury Trial in Civil Lawsuits," last accessed 12/29/2016; The National Judicial College, "Why Jury Trials are Important to a Democratic Society," last accessed 12/29/2016.

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