Ramblings

Usually drunken.

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Jury Rights, or The disappearance of the Jury Veto

Jul 27, 2009, 9:37 am by Paul Stiverson

Jury duty is arguably the only civic duty that any American is still obligated or compelled to perform. Despite the enormous privilege of a system which ensures the right to a trial by jury, people dread jury duty. I can fully appreciate why, who wants to take a day off of work to hear the gory, or worse the mundane, details of somebody else’s alleged wrongdoings. (There are better things anybody could be doing, like watching that marathon of CSI: Miami) They make you sit in an uncomfortable chair, the lunch they feed you isn’t going to come from the deli you like and will probably have Mayo on it despite your explicit instructions. Typically the result of whatever trial you are hearing will not affect you, your family, or society as a whole, in the least. To top it all off you have to pay attention ALL DAY, and they aren’t even going to pay you a fair wage for your day of work.

I understand not wanting the burden of jury duty, because as a juror you are typically not asked to actually weigh in on the case, you are given the evidence and asked to determine who is telling the truth. In most criminal trials there is a pretty strict guideline as to the decisions of the jury. The judge, or some other authority, tells you the letter of the law that should be adhered to. He says, “There are three criteria which need to be met for the defendant to be guilty, if these three criteria are met in your estimation then you must deliver a guilty verdict.” There is no room for their opinion on whether delivering a guilty verdict is actually delivering justice to the defendant. The jury is restricted to judging the facts, not the law, or so they think.

It is actually well within the rights of the jury to offer their opinion on the law itself.1 It is the juries’ unique right to say, in spite of the evidence of crime, that the accused is not guilty. Not guilty because the law itself is not fair. The jury is legally protected in their decisions, they cannot be punished for not executing the letter of the law. When this awesome responsibility is re-integrated2 into jury duty, then it will cease being a boring obligation that deserves to be unquestionably shirked. It will once again become a obligation that should be honored, because it could allow you to issue a referendum on the laws we live by.

Before you pass off this idea as ridiculous please consider the following hypothetical. You are asked to serve on a jury for a prostitution case, and throughout the trial it is made completely clear that the defendant did sell sexual favors thus roundly violated the law. It also becomes clear that the defendant was sold into slavery to pay off a family debt, and if the defendant refused her “Owners’” command to work the streets then she and her family would surely face bodily harm, however the law doesn’t regard coercion as justification. As a juror, do you think that convicting the defendant would be just?

The ‘Jury Veto’ is an extremely useful tool for jurors to offer a dissenting opinion on the law itself, and while their veto doesn’t actually remove or revise the law it does provide justice in the case they are hearing. The fact is that public opinion can be gauged based on these jury vetoes, and the legislature can change the law to reflect the will of the people (see prohibition, some 60% of cases involving alcohol during prohibition showed evidence of a jury veto).

Notes:

  1. State of Georgia v. Brailsford (U.S. Supreme Court, 1794), Sparf and Hansen v. U. S (U.S. Supreme Court, 1895), Also protected under the Constitution of the state of Texas.
  2. It never actually left, however it is not discussed in the courtroom. If jurors don’t know about their rights then they cannot be exercised.

Religion in Iowa Schools

Jul 12, 2009, 2:38 am by Paul Stiverson

There has been a recent proposal in an Iowa school district proposing to allow prayer as an option in commencement exercises, it would also call for the creation of two new elective courses: “The Bible in History and Literature,” and “Critique of Darwinism, A Scientific Approach.” The proposal would also permit teachers to answer questions about their religious beliefs, as well as allowing students to distribute religious materials. The stated purpose of the proposal is to educate about religious faith, and to promote dialog. I cannot say that I am completely opposed to such a measure, if it were enacted it could actually benefit students by allowing for real and diverse religious expression. The proposal clearly states that “[The] School will not discriminate against private religious expression,” so if there are teachers of varying religious backgrounds then it could elucidate the fact that not everybody is a Christian, and it could give refuge to students who are exploring or questioning their own religious beliefs. The proposal would also allow distribution of dissenting literature thus allowing students to inform their classmates about other religions.

Some other folks have said that this proposal is a thinly veiled attempt at thrusting the Christian notion of god back at the fragile and impressionable minds of our youth, complaining that the district is not calling for the creation of any other “The [religious text] in History and Literature” classes. I do agree with them that the classes being added are somewhat one sided, but I don’t think that the critics have considered all aspects of the proposal. The proposal is very clear in its anti-discrimination verbiage, so—while there might not be any classes—there will be discussion of the spiritual alternatives to Christianity. If the proposal is intended as an endorsement of Christianity (I certainly believe this is the case), then it will backfire the first time a student hands out anti-Christian (or non pro-Christian) literature. Handing out this literature—or the refusal to allow it to be distributed—could spark a debate of a much larger scope than just the district. If this proposal is just an attempt to re-enroll god in Iowa schools (if it should pass) then it will quickly be found out and eradicated, but not without shining a national spotlight on how not-far we have come since Scopes. If the proposal’s intentions are true then it is a positive step.

I hope the proposal does pass, and I hope that there are non-Christians who are ready to walk through the flames—so to speak—to endorse their beliefs. If there are then the debate on religion in the public sphere might finally be coming to a head, and the public discourse on religion could get very interesting in the next few months.

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