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The Menace of "Jury Nullification"

It is really appalling to see an obviously educated author--Paul Jackson in the January/February 1999 Humanist--tout jury nullification as a contribution to reason and freedom. Constitutional democracy and the rule of law are the very foundation of freedom, and they cannot exist if they are secretly and arbitrarily subverted at the whim of jurors.

A jury swears or affirms that it will find the true facts so that the laws enacted by elected representatives of the people can be applied to the case. If the law is bad, repeal it. Jury trials, and the rule of law itself, would become a farce if every jury could subvert the law at will--because the standard of justice can only be truth, not error or hypocrisy.

And what happens when fanatics "nullify" constitutional guarantees and freedoms, punishing innocent people whose philosophies, life-styles, or principles they despise? Or will only "good guy" juries nullify the law?

John Tomasin West New York, NJ

Paul Jackson's "Jury Nullification" in the January/February 1999 issue is the worst idea I have ever seen in the Humanist. If a jury of radicals or liberals can just tear up and throw away the law because it doesn't happen to like it, what is to prevent a jury composed of anti-Semites, fascists, Klanners, or neo-Nazis from doing exactly the same thing? The answer is "nothing."

Remember how during the civil rights movement it was all but impossible in the South to find racists guilty of any crime against civil rights workers? That was jury nullification in action. This country has had plenty of experience with it already. We don't need more.

Richard P. DeTar Denver, CO

Editor's note: We know that beneficial as well as harmful effects have come from juries both upholding and nullifying the law. This is hardly surprising given our imperfect world. The best we can do, then, is struggle to find and refine that system of law and justice which seems most workable overall.

In this context, the advocates of jury nullification maintain that our legal system properly includes the right of a jury to question the law or its application. Instead of being opposed to the rule of law, then, advocates of jury nullification see the jury as a legitimate part of the check-and-balance system of our form of government--the public's last defense against bad law or the bad application of good law.

When arguing for this role, advocates note that it's no accident that jurors--unlike judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys --aren't well-trained and well-paid career professionals but, instead, are hastily briefed, underpaid, and often unwilling amateurs drawn from a local roster of registered voters and licensed drivers. The historic and continuing reason for this separate standard in the selection of jurors is that the jury role isn't narrowly professional but broadly political; juries are representatives of "the People" and therefore have been temporarily empowered to apply "community standards "to the case before them.

Because this makes juries uncomfortably unpredictable, the professionals of the courtroom, in pursuit of control, have increasingly worked to reduce jury latitude as well as juror knowledge of existing latitude. That, in turn, has induced a backlash by jury advocates.

Hopefully, through the creative give and take of this controversy, a more improved and refined system of law and justice will develop. The Humanist will undoubtedly find cause to explore this issue further in the future.
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Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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