The Right of Juries to Judge of the Justice of Laws
For more than six hundred years -- that is, since Magna Carta, in 1215 -- there has been no clearer principle of English or American constitutional law, than that: in criminal cases, it is not only the right and duty of juries to judge what are the facts, what is the law, and what was the moral intent of the accused; but that it is also their right, and their primary and paramount duty, to judge the justice of the law, and to hold all laws invalid that are, in their opinion, unjust or oppressive, and all persons guiltless in violating, or resisting the execution of such laws.
Unless such be the right and duty of jurors, it is plain that, instead of juries being a "palladium of liberty"`-- a barrier against the tyranny and oppression of the government-- they are really mere tools in its hands, for carrying into execution any injustice and oppression it may desire to have executed.
But for their right to judge the law, and the justice of the law, juries would be no protection to an accused person, even as to matters of fact; for, if the government can dictate to a jury any law whatever, in a criminal case, it can certainly dictate to them the laws of evidence. That is, it can dictate what evidence is admissible, and what inadmissible, and also what force or weight is to be given to the evidence admitted.
And if the government can thus dictate to a jury the laws of evidence, it can not only make it necessary for them to convict on a partial exhibition of the evidence rightfully pertaining to the case, but it can even require them to convict on any evidence whatever that it pleases to offer them.
That the rights and duties of jurors must necessarily be such as are here claimed for them, will be evident when it is considered what the trial by jury is, and what is its object.
"The trial by jury," then, is a "trial by the country "-- that is by the people-- as distinguished from a trial by the government.
It was anciently called "trial per pais"-- that is, "trial by the country." And now, in every criminal trial, the jury are told that the accused "has, for trial, put himself upon the country; which country you (the jury) are."
The object of this trial "by the country," or by the people, in preference to a trial by the government, is to guard against every species of oppression by the government. In order to effect this end, it is indispensable that the people, or "the country," judge and determine their own liberties against the government; instead of the government's judging of and determining its own powers over the people.
How is it possible that juries can do anything to protect the liberties of the people against the government if they are not allowed to determine what those liberties are?
Any government, that is its own judge of, and determines authoritatively for the people what are its own powers over the people, is an absolute government of course. It has all the powers that it chooses to exercise. There is no other (or at least no accurate) definition of despotism than this.
On the other hand, any people, that judge of, and determine authoritatively for the government what are their own liberties against the government, of course retain all the liberties they wish to enjoy. And this is freedom. At least, it is freedom to them; because, although it may be theoretically imperfect, it nevertheless corresponds to their highest notions of freedom.
To secure this right of the people to judge of their own liberties against the government, the jurors are taken (or must be, to make them lawful jurors) from the body of the people, by lot, or by some process that precludes any previous knowledge, choice, or selection of them, on the part of the government.
This is done to prevent the government's constituting a jury of its own partisans or friends; in other words, to prevent the government's packing a jury, with a view to maintain its own laws, and accomplish its own purposes.
It is supposed that, if twelve men be taken by lot, from the mass of the people, without the possibility of any previous knowledge, choice, or selection of them on the part of the government, the jury will be a fair epitome of "the country" at large, and not merely of the party or action that sustain the measures of the government; that substantially all classes of opinions prevailing among the people will be represented in the jury and especially that the opponents of the government, (if the government have any opponents) will be represented there, as well as its friends-- that the classes, who are oppressed by laws of the government (if any are thus oppressed) will have their representatives in the jury as well as those classes who take sides with the oppressor-- that is, with the government.
It is fairly presumable that such a tribunal will agree to no conviction except such as substantially the whole country would agree to, if they were present, taking part in the trial. A trial by such a tribunal is, therefore, in effect, "a trial by the country."
In its results it probably comes as near to a trial by the whole country as any trial that it is practicable to have without too great inconvenience and expense. And as unanimity is required for a conviction, it follows that no one can be convicted except for the violation of such laws as substantially the whole country wish to have maintained.
The government can enforce none of its laws (by punishing offenders through the verdicts of juries) except such as substantially the whole people wish to have enforced.
The government, therefore, consistently with the trial by jury, can exercise no powers over the people (or, what is the same thing, over the accused person who represents the rights of the people) except such as substantially the whole people of the country consent that it may exercise.
In such a trial, therefore, "the country," or the people, judge of and determine their own liberties against the government instead of the government's judging of and determining its own powers over the people.
But all this "trial by the country" would be no trial at all "by the country," but only a trial by the government, if the government could either declare who may, and who may not, be jurors, or could dictate to the jury anything whatever either of law or of evidence that is of the essence of the trial. If the government may decide who may and who may not be jurors, it will of course select only its partisans and those friendly to its measures.
It may not only prescribe who may and who may not be eligible to be drawn as jurors; but it may also question each person drawn as a juror, as to his sentiments in regard to the particular law involved in each trial, before suffering him to be sworn on the panel; and exclude him if he be found unfavorable to the maintenance of such a law. (Note 1)
So, also, if the government may dictate to the jury what Laws they are to enforce, it is no longer a "trial by the country," but a trial by the government; because the jury then try the accused, not by any standard of their own-- not by their own judgments of their rightful liberties-- but by a standard dictated to them by the government.
And the standard, thus dictated by the government, becomes the measure of the people's liberties. If the government dictate the standard of trial, it of course dictates the results of the trial. And such a trial is no trial by the country, but only a trial by the government; and in it the government determines what are its own powers over the people, instead of the people's determining what are their own liberties against the government.
In short, if the jury have no right to judge of the justice of a law of the government they plainly can do nothing to protect the people against the oppressions of the government; for there are no oppressions which the government may not authorize by law.
The jury are also to judge whether the laws are rightly expounded to them by the court. Unless they judge on this point, they do nothing to protect their liberties against the oppressions that are capable of being practiced under cover of a corrupt exposition of the laws.
If the judiciary can authoritatively dictate to a jury any expositions of the law, they can dictate to them the law itself, and such laws as they please; because laws are, in practice, one thing or another, according as they are expounded.
The jury must also judge whether there really be any such law (be it good or bad) as the accused is charged with having transgressed. Unless they judge on this point, the people are liable to have their liberties taken from them by brute force, without any law at all.
The jury must also judge of the laws of evidence. If the government can dictate to the jury the laws of evidence, it can not only shut out any evidence it pleases, tending to vindicate the accused, but it can require that any evidence whatever, that it pleases to offer, be held as conclusive proof of any offense whatever which the government chooses to allege.
It is manifest, therefore, that the jury must judge of and try the whole case, and every part and parcel of the case, free of any dictation or authority on the part of the government. They must judge of the existence of the law; of the true exposition of the law; of the justice of the law; and of the admissibility of and weight of all the evidence offered; otherwise the government will have everything its own way; the jury will he mere puppets in the hands of the government; and the trial will be, in reality, a trial by the government, and not a "trial by the country."
By such trials the government will determine its own powers over the people, instead of the people's determining their own liberties against the government; and it will be an entire delusion to talk as for centuries we have done, of the trial by the jury, as a "palladium of liberty," or as any protection to the people against the oppression and tyranny of the government.
The question, then, between trial by jury, as thus described, and trial by the government, is simply a question between liberty and despotism. The authority to judge what are the powers of the government, and what are the liberties of the people, must necessarily be vested in one or the other of the parties themselves-- the government, or the people; because there is no third party to whom it can be entrusted.
If the authority be vested in the government, the government is absolute, and the people have no liberties except such as the government sees fit to indulge them with. If on the other hand, that authority be vested in the people, then the people have all liberties (as against the government) except such as substantially the whole people (through a jury) choose to disclaim; and the government can exercise no power except such as substantially the whole people (through a jury) consent that it may exercise.
The force and justice of the preceding argument cannot be evaded by saying that the government is chosen by the people; that, in theory, it represents the people; that it is designed to do the will of the people; that its members are all sworn to observe the fundamental or constitutional law instituted by the people; that its acts are therefore entitled to be considered the acts of the people; and that to allow a jury, representing the people, to invalidate the acts of government, would therefore be arraying the people against themselves.
There are two answers to such an argument.
One answer is, that; in a representative government; there is no absurdity or contradiction, nor any arraying of the people against themselves in requiring that the statutes or enactments of the government shall pass the ordeal of any number of separate tribunals before it shall be determined that they are to have the force of laws.
Our American constitutions have provided five these separate tribunals, to wit; representatives, senate, executive (Note 2), jury, and judges; and have made it necessary that each enactment shall pass the ordeal of all these separate tribunals before its authority can be established by the punishment of those who choose to transgress it. And there is no more absurdity or inconsistency in making a jury one of these several tribunals than there is in making the representatives, or the senate, or the executive, or the judges, one of them.
There is no more absurdity in giving the a jury veto upon the laws than there is in giving a veto to each of these other tribunals. The people are no more arrayed against themselves when a jury puts its veto upon a statute, which the other tribunals have sanctioned, than they are when the same veto is exercised by the representatives, the senate, the executive, or the judges.
But another answer to the argument that the people are arrayed against themselves when a jury hold an enactment of the government invalid is that the government and all the departments of government are merely the servants and agents of the people; not interested with arbitrary or absolute authority to bind the people, but required to submit all their enactment's to the judgment of a tribunal more fairly representing the whole people before they carry them into execution by punishing any individual for transgressing them.
If the government were not thus required to submit their enactments to the judgment of "the country" before executing them upon individuals-- if, in other words, the people had reserved to themselves no veto upon the acts of government, the government, instead of being a mere servant and agent of the people would be an absolute despot over the people.
It would have all power in its own hands; because the power to punish carries all other powers with it. A power that can, of itself, and by its own authority, punish disobedience, can compel obedience and submission, and is above all responsibility for the character of its laws. In short, it is a despotism.
And it is of no consequence to inquire how a government came by this power to punish, whether by prescription, by inheritance, by usurpation, or by delegation of the people? If it have now but got it, the government is absolute.
It is plain, therefore, that if the people have invested the government with power to make laws that absolutely bind the people, and to punish the people for transgressing those laws, the people have surrendered their liberties unreservedly into the hands of the government.
It is of no avail to say, in answer to this view of the case, that in surrendering their liberties into the hands of government, the people took an oath from the Government, that it would exercise its power within certain constitutional limits; for when did oaths ever restrain a government that was otherwise unrestrained?
Or when did a government fail to determine that all its acts were within the constitutional and authorized limits of its power, if it were permitted to determine that question for itself?
Neither is it of any avail to say, that, if the government abuse its power and enact unjust and oppressive laws, the government may be changed by the influence of discussion, and the exercise of the right of suffrage (voting).
Discussion can do nothing to prevent the enactment or procure the repeal of unjust laws unless it be understood that the discussion is to be followed by resistance. Tyrants care nothing for discussions that are to end only in discussion.
Discussions which do not interfere with the enforcement of their laws are but idle wind to them. Suffrage is equally powerless and unreliable. It can be exercised only periodically; and the tyranny must at least be borne until the time for suffrage comes. Besides, when the suffrage is exercised, it gives no guaranty for the repeal of existing laws that are oppressive, and no security against the enactments of new ones that are equally so.
The second body of legislators are liable and likely to be just as tyrannical as the first. If it be said that the second body may be chosen for their integrity, the answer is, that the first were chosen for that very reason, and yet proved tyrants. The second will be exposed to the same temptations as the first, and will be just as likely to prove tyrannical. Who ever heard that succeeding legislatures were, on the whole, more honest than those that preceded them?
What is there in the nature of men or things to make them so? If it be said that the first body were chosen from motives of injustice, that fact proves that there is a portion of society who desire to establish injustice; and if they were powerful or artful enough to procure the election of their instruments to compose the first legislature, they will be likely to be powerful or artful enough to procure the election of the same or similar instruments to compose the second.
The right of suffrage, therefore, and even a change of legislators, guarantees no change of legislation-- certainly no change for the better. Even if a change for the better actually comes, it comes too late, because it comes only after more or less injustice has been irreparably done.
But, at best, the right of suffrage can be exercised only periodically; and between the periods the legislators are wholly irresponsible. No despot was ever more entirely irresponsible than are republican legislators during the period for which they are chosen. They can never be removed from their office, nor called to account while in their office, nor punished after they leave office, be their tyranny what it may.
Moreover, the judicial and executive departments of the government are equally irresponsible to the people, and are only responsible (by impeachment and dependence for their salaries) to these irresponsible legislators. This dependence of the judiciary and executive upon the legislature is a guaranty that they will always sanction and execute its laws, whether just or unjust.
Thus the legislators hold the whole power of the government in their hands, and are at the same time utterly irresponsible for the manner in which they use it.
If; now, this government (the three branches thus really united in one) can determine the validity of and enforce its own laws, it is for the time being, entirely absolute and wholly irresponsible to the people.
But this is not all. These legislators, and this government, so irresponsible while in power, can perpetuate their power at pleasure, if they can determine what legislation is authoritative upon the people, and can enforce obedience to it; for they can not only declare their power perpetual, but they can enforce submission to all legislation that is necessary to secure its perpetuity.
They can, for example, prohibit all discussion of the rightfulness of their authority; forbid the use of suffrage; prevent the election of any successors; disarm, plunder, imprison, and even kill all who refuse submission. If, therefore, the government (all departments united) be absolute for a day-- that is, if it can, for a day, enforce obedience to its own laws-- it can, in that day, secure its power for all time-- like the queen, who wished to reign but for a day, but in that day caused the king, her husband, to be slain, and usurped his throne.
Nor will it avail to say that such acts would be unconstitutional, and that unconstitutional acts may be lawfully resisted; for everything a government pleases to do will, of course, be determined to be constitutional, if the government itself be permitted to determine the question of the constitutionality of its own acts. Those who are capable of tyranny, are capable of perjury to sustain it.
The conclusion, therefore, is, that any government, that can, for a day, enforce its own laws, without appealing to the people (or to a tribunal fairly representing The people) for their consent, is, in theory, an absolute government, irresponsible to the people, and can perpetuate its power at pleasure.
The trial by jury is based upon a recognition of this principle, and therefore forbids the government to execute any of its laws, by punishing violators, in any case whatever, without first getting the consent of "The country," or the people, through a jury. In this way, the people at all times, hold their liberties in their own hands, and never surrender them, even for a moment, into the hands of government.
The trial by jury, then, gives to any and every individual the liberty, at any time, to disregard or resist any law whatever of the government, if he be willing to submit to the decision of a jury, the questions, whether the law be intrinsically just and obligatory? And whether his conduct, in disregarding or resisting it, were right in itself?
And any law, which does not, in such trial, obtain the unanimous sanction of twelve men, taken at random from the people, and judging according to the standard of justice in their own minds, free from all dictation and authority of the government, may be transgressed and resisted with impunity, by whomsoever pleases to transgress or resist it. (Note 3)
The trial by jury authorizes all this, or it is a sham and a hoax, utterly worthless for protecting the people against oppression. If it do not authorize an individual to resist the first and least act of injustice or tyranny, on the part of the government, it does not authorize him to resist the last and the greatest. If it do not authorize individuals to nip tyranny in the bud, it does not authorize them to cut it down when its branches are filled with the ripe fruits of plunder and oppression.
Those who deny the right of a jury to protect an individual in resisting an unjust law of the government, deny him all legal defense whatsoever against oppression. The right of revolution, which tyrants, in mockery, accord to mankind, is no legal right under a government; it is only a natural right to overturn a government. The government itself never acknowledges this right. And the right is practically established only when and because the government no longer exists to call it in question.
The right, therefore, can be exercised with immunity, only when it is exercised victoriously. All unsuccessful attempts at revolution, however justifiable in themselves, are punished as treason, if the government be permitted to judge of the treason. The government itself never admits the injustice of its laws, as a legal defense for those who have attempted a revolution and failed.
The right of revolution, therefore, is a right of no practical value, except for those who are stronger than the government. So long, therefore, as the oppressions of a government are kept within such limits as simply not to exasperate against it a power greater than its own, the right of revolution cannot be appealed to, and is therefore inapplicable to the case. This affords a wide field for tyranny; and if a jury cannot here intervene, the oppressed are utterly defenseless.
It is manifest that the only security against the tyranny of the government lies in forcible resistance to the execution of the injustice; because the injustice will certainly be executed, unless it be forcibly resisted. And if it be but suffered to be executed, It must then be borne; for the government never makes compensation for its own wrongs.
Since, then, this forcible resistance to the injustice of the government is the only possible means of preserving liberty, it is indispensable to all legal liberty that this resistance should be legalized. It is perfectly self-evident that where there is no legal right to resist the oppression of the government, there can be no legal liberty.
And here it is all-important to notice, that; practically speaking, there can be no legal right to resist the oppressions of the government unless there be some legal tribunal, other than the government, and wholly independent of; and above, the government, to judge between the government and those who resist its oppressions; in other words, to judge what laws of the government are to be obeyed, and what may be resisted and held for naught.
The only tribunal known to our laws, for this purpose, is a jury. If a jury have not the right to judge between the government and those who disobey its laws, and resist its oppressions, the government is absolute, and the people, legally speaking, are slaves. Like many other slaves they may have sufficient courage and strength to keep their masters somewhat in cheek; but they are nevertheless known to the law only as slaves.
That this right of resistance was recognized as a common law right, when the ancient and genuine trial by jury was in force, is not only proved by the nature of the trial itself, but is acknowledged by history. (Note 4)
This right of resistance is recognized by the constitution of the United States as a strictly legal and constitutional right. It is so recognized, first by the provision that "the trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury" - that is, by the country - and not by the government; secondly, by the provision that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
This constitutional security for "the right to keep and bear arms," implies the right to use them-- as mush as a constitutional security for the right to buy and keep food would have implied the right to eat it. The constitution, therefore, takes it for granted that the people will judge of the conduct of the government, and that, as they have the right, they will also have the sense to use arms whenever the necessity of the case justifies it. And it is a sufficient and legal defense for a person accused of using arms against the government if he can show to the satisfaction of a jury, or even any one of a jury, that the law he resisted was an unjust one.
In the American State constitutions also, this right of resistance to the oppressions of the government is recognized in various ways as a natural, legal, and constitutional right. In the first place, it is so recognized by provisions establishing the trial by jury; thus requiring that accused persons shall be tried by "the country," instead of the government.
In the second place, it is recognized by many of them, as, for example, those of Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, by provisions, in their bills of rights, declaring that men have a natural, inherent, and inalienable right of "defending their lives and liberties."
This, of course, means that they have a right to defend them against any injustice on the part of government, and not merely on the part of private individuals; because the object of all bills of rights is to assert the rights of individuals and the people, as against the government, and not as against private persons. It would be a matter of ridiculous supererogation to assert, in a constitution of government, the natural right of men to defend their lives and liberties against private trespassers.
Many of these bills of rights also assert the natural right of all men to protect their property-- that is, to protect it against the government. It would be unnecessary and silly indeed to assert, in a constitution of government, the natural right of individuals to protect their property against thieves and robbers.
The constitutions of New Hampshire and Tennessee also declare that "The doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind."
The legal effect of these constitutional recognitions of the right of individuals to defend their property, liberties, and lives, against the government, is to legalize resistance to all injustice and oppression, of every name and nature whatsoever, on the part of the government.
But for this right of resistance, on the part of the people, all governments would become tyrannical to a degree of which few people are aware. Constitutions are utterly worthless to restrain the tyranny of governments, unless it be understood that the people will, by force, compel the government to keep within the constitutional limits. Practically speaking, no government knows any limits to its power, except the endurance of the people.
But that the people are stronger than the government, and will resist in extreme cases, our governments would be little or nothing else than organized systems of plunder and oppression. All, or nearly all, the advantage there is in fixing any constitutional limits to the power of a government, is simply to give notice to the government of the point at which it will meet with resistance.
If the people are then as good as their word may keep the government within the bounds they have set for it; otherwise it will disregard them-- as is proved by the example of all our American governments, in which the constitutions have all become obsolete, at the moment of their adoption, for nearly or quite all purposes except the appointment of fixers, who at once become practically absolute, except so far as they are restrained by the fear of popular resistance.
The bounds set to the power of the government, by the trial by jury, as will hereafter be shown, are these-- that the government shall never touch the property, person, or natural or civil rights of an individual, against his consent, (except for the purpose of bringing them before a jury for trial,) unless in pursuance and execution of a judgment, or decree, rendered by a jury in each individual case, upon such evidence, and such law, as are satisfactory to their own understandings and consciences, irrespective of all legislation of the government.
To show that this supposition is not an extravagant one, it may be mentioned that courts have repeatedly questioned jurors to ascertain whether they were prejudiced against the government-- that is, whether they were in favor of, or opposed to, such laws of the government as were to be put in issue in the then pending trial. This was done (in 1851) in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, by Peleg Sprague, the United States district judge, in empaneling three several juries for the trials of Scott, Hayden, and Morris, charged with having aided in the rescue of a fugitive slave from the custody of the United States deputy marshal.
This judge caused the following question to be propounded to all the jurors separately, and those who answered unfavorably for the purposes of government, were excluded from the panel. "Do you hold any opinions upon the subject of the Fugitive Slave law, so called, which will induce you to refuse to convict a person indicted under it, if the facts set forth in the indictment, and contesting the offence, are proved against him, and the court direct you that the law is constitutional!"
The reason of this question was, that "the Fugitive Slave law, so called," was so obnoxious to a large portion of the people, as to render a conviction under it hopeless, if the jurors were taken indiscriminately from among the people.
A similar question was soon afterwards propounded to the persons drawn as jurors in the United States Circuit Court for the District of Massachusetts, by Benjamin R. Curtis, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, in empaneling a jury for the trial of the aforesaid Morris on the charge before mentioned; and those who did not answer the question favorably for the government were again excluded from the panel.
It has also been an habitual practice with the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in empaneling juries for the trial of capital offences, to inquire of the persons drawn as jurors whether they had any conscientious scruples against finding verdicts of guilty in such cases; that is, whether they had any conscientious scruples against sustaining the law prescribing death as the punishment of the crime to be tried; and to exclude from, the panel all who answered in the affirmative.
The only principle upon which these questions are asked, is this-- that no man shall be allowed to serve as juror unless he be ready to enforce any enactment of the government, however cruel or tyrannical it may be. What is such a jury good for, as a protection against the tyranny of the government! A jury like that is palpably nothing but a mere tool of oppression in the hands of the government.
A trial by such a jury is really a trial by the government itself-- and not a trial by the country-- because it is a trial only by men only specially selected by the government for their readiness to enforce its own tyrannical measures. If that be the true principle of the trial by jury, the trial is utterly worthless as a security to liberty.
The Czar might, with perfect safety to his authority, introduce the trial by jury into Russia, if he could but be permitted to select his jurors from those who were ready to maintain his laws, without regard to their injustice.
The example is sufficient to show that the very pith of the trial by jury, as a safeguard to liberty, consists in the jurors being taken indiscriminately from the whole people, and in their right to hold invalid all laws which they think unjust.
The executive has a qualified veto upon the passage of laws, in most of our governments, and an absolute veto, in all of them, upon the execution of any laws Which he deems unconstitutional; because his oath to support the constitution (as he understands it) forbids him to execute any law that he deems unconstitutional.
And if there be so much as a reasonable doubt of the justice of the laws, the benefit of the doubt must be given to the defendant, and not to the government. So that the government must keep its laws clearly within the limits of justice if it would ask a jury to enforce them.
Hallam says "The relationship established between a lord and his vassal by the feudal tenure, far from containing principles of any servile and implicit obedience, permitted the contract to be dissolved in case of its violation by either party. This extended as much to the sovereign as to inferior lords.
If a vassal was aggrieved, and if justice was denied him, he sent a defiance, that is, a renunciation of fealty to the king, was entitled to enforce redress at the point of his sword. It then became a contest of strength as between two independent potentates, and was terminated by treaty, advantageous or otherwise, according to the fortune of war.
There remained the original principle, that allegiance depended upon good treatment, and that an appeal might be made lawfully to arms against an oppressive government. Nor was this, we may be sure, left for extreme necessity, or thought to require a long-enduring forbearance.
In modern times, a king, compelled by his subjects subjects' s swords to abandon any pretension, would be supposed to have ceased to reign; and the express recognition of such a right as that of insurrection has been justly deemed inconsistent with the majority of law.
But ruder ages had ruder sentiments. Force was necessary to repel force; and men accustomed to see the king's authority defied by a private riot, were not much shocked when it was resisted in defense of public freedom." -- 3 Middle Ages. 240-3.