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).


  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.

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mark Says:

Jul 28, 2009

"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."

In that scenario, the 'defendant' would be the victim, and in my estimation would most likely not face trial, instead being offered a deal, to testify against the group that coerced them. Justice may be blind, but prosecuting attorney's usually aren't that blind. I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone (let alone 12 people) to issue a guilty verdict to the 'defendant' in that above, even though they clearly did the dirty.

All of my experiences in jury duty have been as follows, show up on time at 7:00pm. Sit in the designated room for 2~3 hours entertaining myself by reading my book. Get the 10 minute speech and swear myself in. Watch for the next 30 minutes as people go up to the court officer or judge with excuses about why they need to leave. Wait for another hour as rooms are assigned and travel to the designated room with 40~60 other jurors. Wait for the court parties to come back from lunch. Mill around out in the hallway for a while, then get dismissed, because the accused has elected to settle out of court or forego their trial. That's the main problem with jury duty, in most (or in my current state; all) instances it is a colossal waste of time. If I were were actually to be seated, or at the least interviewed as a juror I could go home satisfied.

Oh, Law and Order (Original and SVU) > CSI. :p

Paul Stiverson Says:

Jul 28, 2009

Perhaps my fake situation was a little contrived, however you did agree that no jury out there would convict. A more appropriate (and realistic) scenario is one of an escaped slave who was caught in the north, put to trial under the Fugitive Slave Act, and released by a jury who disagreed with the legitimacy of the law.

zach Says:

Jul 29, 2009

If I could be on a jury deciding something exciting and important, yeah, I'd be glad to do it. Keeping 50 people from going to their jobs on a case involving something really stupid like check fraud is a massive waste.

mark Says:

Jul 30, 2009

exciting, you want exciting? my last assignment for jury duty was in the traffic citations court.

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Dec 17, 2013

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