By Don Doig
National Coordinator, Fully Informed Jury Association
Are you one of the millions of Americans who feel you have no control over the government, that lately it seems to be acting more like a "master" than a "servant"?
Did America's Founders leave us defenseless? No, they did not. We, the people, do have a very powerful personal "handle" on our government. This is the power of the jury to judge the law itself, if justice requires it, and to refuse to convict the defendant if the law is lacking in merit. Jurors may believe a law to be unconstitutional, or fundamentally unfair, or misapplied in the case at hand. In order to fulfil their responsibility to the defendant, the community, and their own consciences, they must not set aside their own judgment of right and wrong. Jurors can never be punished for a verdict which displeases the judge.
In a word, the jury was traditionally viewed as a political institution, charged with the responsibility not only to deliver justice in a particular case, but to enforce the Bill of Rights! Just like the three sitting branches of government, it has a veto on proposed laws.
These principles date back hundreds of years. In 1670, William Penn was arrested for preaching a Quaker sermon, by so doing breaking the law of England, which made the Church of England the only legal church. The jurors in his trial, led by Edward Bushell, refused to convict him, despite being detained for days and held without food, water, tobacco or toilet facilities. The most adamant four of them were then put in prison for nine weeks.
When it eventually released the four by court order, the highest court of England both acknowledged and established that trial jurors could not be punished for their verdicts. Our freedoms of religion, peaceable assembly and speech thus all trace to our right to a trial by a jury of peers, a jury unintimidated by the government.
The sedition trial of John Peter Zenger, in the American colonies, was another landmark case. Zenger was arrested for publishing materials critical of the Royal Governor of New York colony and his cronies, accusing them of corruption. While the charges were true, the jury was told that under the law, truth was no defense.
Zenger's attorney, Andrew Hamilton, argued to the jury that they were judges of the merits of the law, and should not go against good conscience to convict Zenger of violating such a bad law. The jurors agreed. Zenger was acquitted in about fifteen minutes, and his case helped establish the right to freedom of the press.
As Thomas Jefferson said, in a letter to Thomas Paine in 1789: "I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet devised by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."
America's second President, John Adams, said in 1771: "It is not only [the juror's] right, but his duty...to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court."
And John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said: "The jury has a right to judge both the law as well as the fact in controversy." Georgia v. Brailsford, 1794.
In American legal tradition, an unconstitutional law is viewed as invalid, and is no law at all. And until a law passes the test of community acceptance, and is enforced by juries, it cannot be viewed as a done deal. Meanwhile, legislators continue to receive community feedback on how their work is being received.
Judges have, for the last hundred years, tried to hide this power from the American people, and now actively attempt to suppress it. The Fully Informed Jury Association is working to inform all Americans about their right as citizen jurors to vote their consciences, and would like to see citizens chosen to serve as jurors told the truth about their actual rights and responsibilities, as a matter of law.
Contact: FIJA, P.O. Box 59, Helmville, MT 59843; 1-800-TEL-JURY.