The joy of the jury
By: Neil Rockind in News Stories
July 24, 2015
“I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” — Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine
True then. True today. For 22 years, I have witnessed the magic of juries. Juries breathe life into an overly mechanical and technical legal system. Ask me the one “right” that is indispensable to our society. While some would choose free speech or the right to be free from unlawful searches, I’d say the right to trial by jury. Arguing to Jury.
Perhaps my love for juries stems from my family’s plight. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, chased to this country by homicidal maniacs. There was no jury to deem their innocence or guilt even though no crime had been committed, just a blanket Nazi death sentence for being Jewish.
When my 5th grade teacher accused me of an indiscretion and wouldn’t allow me to defend myself, I was punished for something I did not do. No jury of my peers. I never forgot what it is like to not have a voice or an opportunity to explain myself — or to have someone else consider the situation. You know those childhood moments that shape you? This was mine.
My innocence in that particular situation notwithstanding, school was difficult for me. I struggled in school with what was certainly undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder. At the time, there was no such diagnosis. We were labeled “bad kids.” Paying attention, following detailed homework assignments and test taking — staples of elementary and high school education — flummoxed me.
The worse I did in school, the more I disliked school. Ultimately I compensated for my difficulties by learning to communicate verbally, face to face, person to person. But I still struggled. A proud graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I attended Oakland Community College for one year before transferring. I still see myself as the underdog — and ultimately chose to defend the underdog, too. But I could never do it without a jury.
Ah, the joy of the jury! The cornerstone of our legal system.
In Alice in Wonderland, during the trial of the thief of the queen’s tarts, Alice repeatedly advises the king and others that the jury must not decide the case until they have the facts. In this simple example, we see the value of the jury: the king cannot tell the jury what to do. The one limitation on the power of the monarch was a jury.
History lesson: William the Conqueror brought to England a system of having witnesses who knew about a matter to tell a court of law what they knew. The English word juror comes from the Old French jurer which means “to swear.” In 12th Century England, juries were a tool for the king, employed to discover and present facts in answer to questions by the king.
By the end of the 15th century, the jury system came to be regarded as the most valuable feature of English common law, but it was not until the late 17th century that a jury could return a verdict of “not guilty” and not be in fear of fines or imprisonment. Hardly the impartial jury we now rely upon!
In the United States, the jury system became more important after the Revolutionary War. The right to trial by a jury of one’s peers became a symbol of the overthrown power of the king. Our ideal of equal justice for all probably could not have evolved without this strong belief in the wisdom of the jury.
Of all my responsibilities as a trial attorney, I find jury selection both sacred and the most rewarding. I love selecting a jury! I think if more citizens were aware of the significance behind their civic obligation, they would relish the opportunity to serve.
Well, maybe not relish, but at least they might not dread it — and instead, fully commit to upholding this foundation of freedom set forth in our U.S. Constitution.
Neil Rockind is a criminal defense attorney and founder of Southfield, Michigan-based Rockind Law. In 2015, he was named a Michigan Leader in the Law by Michigan Lawyers Weekly.