The Power of Juries

Orange County Register

Monday Sep. 8, 1997

Source: Orange County Register -- metro, page 6
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Some jury activist organizations have declared September 8 as Jury Rights Day, in commemoration of the day in 1670. This stubborn exercise of all the rights of a jury - exercised despite the fact that four jurors spent nine weeks in prison for refusing to heed the instructions of the court -- was instrumental in establishing not only the rights of juries, but freedom of religion, the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and habeas corpus. All because a jury exercised its right to judge not only the facts in a case, but also whether the law was just and applicable.

It was a jury exercising what is sometimes called "nullification" that led to the establishment of freedom of the press in the United States. John Peter Zenger in 1735 was indubitably guilty of printing in his newspaper what was defined under law as seditious libel. But a jury refused to convict him, setting a precedent that led to increased discussion of the importance of press freedom and, eventually, the First Amendment.

Juries are commonly told these days that their job is to judge the facts in a case and to adhere strictly to the judge's instructions when it comes to the law and its interpretation. This is different from an older, sturdier American tradition.

The Supreme Court in 1794 was quite clear: "It is presumed that the juries are the best judges of facts; it is, on the other hand, presumed that the courts are the best judges of law. But still both objects are within your [the jury's] power of decision."

As recently as 1972, in U.S. v. Dougherty, the Supreme Court affirmed this view: "The jury has an unreviewable and unreversible power ... to acquit in disregard of the instructions on the law given by the trial judge." The opinion continued that "jury law lessness is the greatest corrective of law in its actual administration. The will of the state at large imposed on a reluctant community, the will of a majority imposed on a vigorous and determined minority, find the same obstacle in the local jury that formerly kings and ministers faced."

Intelligent, informed juries can be an important safeguard of liberty and individual rights. It is appropriate to understand, celebrate and preserve those rights.

Produced by: The Media Awareness Project (MAP)

Edited by: Kiril H. Dubrovsky (

Re-distributed by the:
Jury Rights Project (

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