What do juries have to do with deliberative democracy? Here at the Jury and Democracy Project, we regularly hear that juries are an administrative curiosity, unconnected from the more central concerns of democracy, government, and politics.
In our view, juries have a great deal to do with how we interpret and enforce laws. They open the judicial branch in the U.S. and many other countries to direct citizen involvement–and empowerment–in a way that legislative and executive branches don’t.
But occasionally, one can see more clearly the nexus of juries and politics. Two recent cases highlight this. A federal jury just convicted a county commissioner in Florida on corruption charges:
U.S. Attorney Robert O’Neill told jurors White had abused his position, promising assistance to people who gave him money. He said after the verdict that they upheld the principle that elected officials have a duty to represent all the public, not just those who pay. “We cannot have public officials acting corruptly,” O’Neill said afterward. “It perverts our system of justice and the democratic process.”
Though O’Neill gets the lead quote in the story, but it’s a remarkable thing to have a corruption verdict handed down not by a vindictive and suspect rival public official, but instead by a cross-section of the lay public. It’s one of the geniuses of a jury system that it makes the public the judge of public officials. And just one verdict like this can help rein in future electeds, who get from the jury a better sense of what the public will and will not permit from its officials.
The second example we pull is a case still underway. This time, a Brooklyn assemblyman stands trial. The same basic idea operates here, his fate is in the hands of the lay public, as assembled in the form of a federal jury. As this post goes up, the jury has sent the judge a note that explains it is at “an impasse.” The author of the note added, “Be back tomorrow.”
For an evening, the jurors will go home to their families, their homes, their communities. They will not discuss the trial, but they will reconnect briefly in their regular, daily lives before trying again to reach agreement on how to address an allegation of public corruption. In this way, the U.S. keeps the sensibilities of a lay public connected to the enforcement of the laws governing the government itself. Once again, it’s just another clear example of how jury deliberation plays a vital role in the larger democratic process.