Archive for July, 2011

Jury Nullification

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

Founding-era Americans valued the right to a trial by jury as a key safeguard against tyranny. The Declaration of Independence listed denial of trial by jury as one of the “injuries and usurpations” that made it necessary to dissolve political ties with England. Later, it became a point of contention when the original draft of the constitution didn’t explicitly state the right to a jury trial. In a letter to James Madison on the subject, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I will now add what I do not like. First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for … trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land.” Letter from Jefferson to Madison dated 20 Dec 1787. Jefferson’s concerns were later answered with Amendments VI and VII of the Bill of Rights: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury … In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved …”

Juries undoubtedly serve an important role in the legal system, but some people, both then and now, insist that a jury should do much more than impartially decide the facts of the case. They argue that a jury should have the power to nullify, or refuse to enforce, laws that it decides are unjust. This is called jury nullification. The basic idea is that since juries deliberate privately, and are not accountable in any way for their decision, judges have difficulty making them follow instructions and apply the written law. The practical outcome is that even if the government presents evidence proving every fact necessary under the law to establish guilt, the jury could still return a verdict of not guilty.

An organization called the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) is among the most vocal supporters of jury nullification today. Its purpose statement includes the following: “The primary function of the independent juror is not, as many think, to dispense punishment to fellow citizens accused of breaking various laws, but rather to protect fellow citizens from tyrannical abuses of power by government.” And further,

When every American juror is aware of and permitted to exercise all of his and her rights, the final judgment of law will return to where it was always intended to be located…in the hands of the people. Once again our jury system will function as our country’s founders intended it to function as people’s final check against the government’s tendency to encroach upon the rights of its people.

Not surprisingly, however, jury nullification has many critics, especially among judges, and they have designed several tools to counter its use:

 Shhhhhh – No Open Argument for Nullification in Court

First and foremost is a rule in many jurisdictions that a lawyer who argues for jury nullification has committed an ethical violation—and may be subject to disbarment. Washington D.C., for example, has such a rule:

A lawyer defending a criminal case may zealously advocate for the acquittal of his client using any evidentiary argument for which he has a reasonable good faith basis. Current legal standards strongly disfavor jury nullification and prohibit express exhortations that a jury nullify the law. Accordingly, a lawyer may not, consistent with the rules of professional conduct, expressly urge a jury to disregard the law.

Opinion 320, Jury Nullification Arguments by Criminal Defense Counsel. Not only do state bar licensing organizations prohibit lawyers from openly arguing for nullification, judges explicitly instruct jurors that they must obey the judge when it comes to questions of law. For example judges in the 5th Federal Circuit give the following instruction to jurors at the outset of criminal trials:

I will decide which rules of law apply to this case, in response to questions or objections raised by the attorneys as we go along, and also in the final instructions given to you after the evidence and arguments are completed. You must follow the law as I explain it to you whether you agree with it or not.

 5th Circuit 2001 Jury Instructions, pg 5. (pdf)

Controlling the Evidence – The Relevance Rule

The restriction against openly asking the jury for nullification is made even more effective by restricting evidence and subsequent argument to issues deemed relevant by the judge. This means that if a lawyer attempts to present evidence that does not relate to an element of the law that the defendant is accused of violating, the opposing side can object to having that evidence presented to the jury. So, for example, if a lawyer defending a marijuana user attempted to introduce evidence that marijuana is mostly harmless to the user or that no one was directly hurt by the use, the prosecution could object and have that evidence excluded as irrelevant because it does not bear on the simple question of whether or not the defendant knowingly and voluntarily used marijuana.

Bifurcation – Dividing the Trial Into Two Parts

Another method used to combat jury nullification is to split the guilt phase and the sentencing phase of the trial into two different proceedings. The jury is first asked to determine whether the defendant did the acts of which he is accused. Only if the jury answers that question affirmatively is there any discussion of an appropriate sentence. Separating the phases of the trial helps to prevent the jurors from getting distracted from the issue of guilt or innocence by the pity and sympathy evoked by discussion of sentence severity. This tool is called bifurcation, and it is made more effective by the creation of statutory minimum sentences.

Voir Dire – Picking the Jury

Finally, judges and lawyers will almost always ask prospective jurors during the jury selection phase of the trial, called voir dire, whether or not they are willing to follow the instructions of the judge and apply the law as it is explained to them by the judge. If a juror hesitates or refuses, then the judge will strike the prospective juror and substitute a more compliant one in his or her place.

I have mixed feelings about jury nullification. Maybe, on this subject, my usual enthusiasm for libertarian ideas is dampened a little by my legal training and experience. On the one hand, I recognize that jury nullification could ideally prevent the enforcement of laws which are unconstitutional or simply unjust. But the tradeoff’s are costly. Jury nullification introduces inconsistency and inequality into a system which requires consistency and equality to function properly. In essence, it makes written law pointless. I’m not the only one who has misgivings. Judge Robert Bork called jury nullification a pernicious practice, and wrote,

To be ruled by each individual’s moral beliefs is to invite, indeed to guarantee, social tumult and disorder. The law alone is uniform, a composite or compromise of varying moral assessments, to be applied to all alike, regardless of personal attitudes … If an acceptable mix of freedom and order are to be maintained, obedience to law must be accepted as a primary moral duty.

Robert Bork, Thomas More for Our Season, 94 First Things 17-21 (June/July 1999). Judge Bork’s argument, as I understand it, is that when jurors are free to nullify the written law, the individual on trial is found guilty or not depending upon the moral and emotional reactions of the jury to the defense attorney’s presentation. This allows all of the prejudices and preconceptions of the jurors to taint the verdict, and introduces a great deal of unnecessary uncertainty into the legal system. One of the primary advantages of written law, uniformly applied, is that it helps avoid consideration of irrelevant facts, such as race, religion, gender, political affiliation, occupation, education, wealth, etc. when deciding guilt or innocence. Jury nullification, by making written law irrelevant, eliminates that advantage.

Judge James Wilson, an important member of the Constitutional Convention, also opposed jury nullification. He wrote,

In the cases and on the principles, which we have mentioned, jurors possess the power of determining legal questions. But they must determine those questions, as judges must determine them, according to law. The discretionary powers of jurors find no place for exertion here. Those powers they possess as triers of facts; because, as we have already observed, the trial of facts depends on evidence; and because the force of evidence cannot be ascertained by any general system of rules. But law, particularly the common law, is governed by precedents, and customs, and authorities, and maxims: those precedents, and customs, and authorities, and maxims are alike obligatory upon jurors as upon judges, in deciding questions of law.

James Wilson, Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 2 The Subject Continued. Of Juries. Chapter VI (Kermit L. Hall & Mark David Hall eds. 2007). In other words, when a jury decides factual questions, we expect it to use discretion. We expect it to rely upon common sense and its members’ collective life experience to determine who is telling the truth and what really happened. But when it decides legal questions, it must apply the same “precedents, customs, authorities, and maxims” that bind judges.

The concept of obedience to precedent grows out of the belief, perhaps fanciful, perhaps not, that previous generations had some measure of wisdom to pass down to us. That the way they resolved legal issues then may be useful to us in deciding those same issues today. Obedience to precedent also grows out of the principle that the law should be consistent. That it should give fair warning to people of its expectations and requirements before penalizing them. Jury nullification necessarily disregards precedent; it gives no weight to the wisdom of past generations; it creates a situation in which no one can really predict from one case to the next whether the law will penalize behavior or not. All outcomes depend entirely upon the whim of the particular jury.

Ultimately, I guess my feelings about jury nullification are similar to my feelings about judicial activism. If jurors could be trusted to do justice rather than be ruled by emotion, prejudice, and popular feeling, then I would be happy to have them nullify unjust laws. But the simple truth is that that doesn’t happen. A good enough defense attorney can make almost any murderer to look like a Lennie Small and any thief to look like a Jean Valjean. With as many flaws as our legislative process has, I still think it is superior to a system where the law is created on an ad hoc basis by individuals or small groups. An essential part of an impartial legal system is that judges and jurors cannot be held accountable for their decisions, so the law must be made by someone else. The law must be made by individuals who are—at least in some measure—accountable to the people.

Federalism Protects Our Voice in Government

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

In the United States, federalism is the division of powers between state governments and the federal government. In the Constitution, the federal government was given power to make laws in certain areas, such as national defense, bankruptcy, and the regulation of the value of money. (See U.S. Const. art. I, § 8.) The states retained power to make laws in other areas, such as education, welfare, and criminal law. Federalism is sometimes referred to as the vertical separation of powers. The horizontal separation of powers is the division of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.

Many of the founders believed that the concentration of political power is dangerous to our liberty: “What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and power into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian senate.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph C. Cabell, Feb. 2, 1816.) The diffusion of power that occurs in a federalist form of government is a powerful check on tyranny.

Federalism also protects one of the privileges we enjoy as citizens in a representative government: our power to influence government decisions through our right to vote. When political power is consolidated into one body, the ability of citizens to influence government policy is diminished. The following example illustrates this concept:

Suppose that a number of years ago, the federal government entered an area of law that previously had been a province of the states – I will use agriculture in this example. In regulating agriculture, Congress and a federal administrative agency promulgated a variety of laws and regulations. For example, one regulation limited the amount of land farmers could dedicate to the production of certain crops. Congress also passed a law prohibiting states from regulating agriculture.

Tom is a farmer in Utah. Prior to the passage of the federal laws regulating agriculture, Tom could influence agriculture policy in Utah by voting for candidates for state office, such as candidates for the state legislature. After passage of the federal legislation, Tom could influence agricultural policy in the United States by voting for candidates for federal office, such as Congress.

When the federal government asserted control over agriculture, Tom’s ability to influence agriculture policy in Utah was significantly curtailed. Let us assume that there are 1,530,574 registered voters in Utah, (State of Utah Elections Office), and about 146,311,000 registered voters in the United States, (U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, November 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). Therefore, about 1% of registered voters in the United States are from Utah. As far as influencing agricultural policy in Utah is concerned, the votes of people from Utah are now worth about 1% of what they were worth when agriculture was a state issue. I note that in a state where the average number of voters is close to the mean of about 3 million (146 million registered voters in the U.S. / 50 states), the votes of people from that state on agricultural issues are now worth about 2% of what they were worth when agriculture was a state issue.

After Congress began to regulate agriculture, Tom’s votes for Congressional candidates could influence agricultural policy in the entire nation. However, Tom has little interest in influencing agricultural policy in other states. He has a much greater interest in influencing agricultural policy in Utah because it directly affects himself, his family, and friends.

When the federal government took the power to regulate agriculture from state governments, the votes of people from Utah regarding agricultural issues became diluted to the point of practical insignificance. People from Utah essentially lost the ability to control agricultural policy in Utah. The consolidation of political power results in the effective disenfranchisement of citizens. This disenfranchisement is a subtle erosion of individual rights, and occurs when the principle of federalism is violated.

When Congress entered the area of agriculture, people like Tom felt relatively powerless to influence agricultural policy in their states, and became less likely to vote or otherwise engage in the political process. We should not wonder at low voter turnout where the federal government has increasingly taken over functions that were previously allocated to state and local governments. Since the early days of this country, the federal government has greatly expanded its reach into many areas, including education, welfare, agriculture, labor, healthcare, the environment, and criminal law. Various problems arise when citizen involvement in the democratic process is reduced. For example, special interests are able to exert greater influence over the political process, securing results that benefit themselves, even while the populace as a whole is harmed.

Although the example above examines the division of power between the national and state governments, a dilution of an individual’s political power also occurs when a state assumes control of an issue that should be decided by a local government. Therefore, it is also important be aware of this issue in state and local matters.

In conclusion, the concept of federalism allocates greater political power to the individual because the smaller the political unit, the more influence each vote carries. Federalism encourages citizen participation in the governing process by protecting our voice in government – our ability to influence the political process.


*Note:  In the example above I make the simplifying assumption that all individuals have an equal ability to influence policy with their votes.  In reality, all votes do not have the same weight.  For example, in elections for the United States Senate, the votes of people from less populous states have a greater weight than votes of people from more populous states, because no matter how many people are in a state, each state can choose two senators.

New Author

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

During the past few months my posts have fallen off in frequency due to increased demands at work, so I’ve invited other authors to help keep the blog content fresh. Each of us has a different perspective, and we likely will disagree about an issue or two now and then, but the contributions will be thoughtful and interesting. Adam is the first to have accepted my invitation. His first post follows this one. Enjoy.