The Jury’s Power in a Democracy as a Means of Holding Elected Officials Accountable

Most criminal juries convict the accused, but the person going to jail usually has the status of simply “fellow citizen.” Jurors are, after all, of one’s peers, in the looser sense of that word.

But when a jury convicts a former member of Congress, nay, a former House Majority Leader, as just happened in Texas, it illustrates just how powerful the jury is. Tom DeLay’s crime (now legal after the Citizens United decision?) was summarized by the Austin American Statesman:

DeLay, a Republican whose nickname was “The Hammer” because of his heavy-handed leadership style, was accused of conspiring to funnel $190,000 of corporate money through the Republican National Committee, which sent $190,000 in campaign donations to seven GOP candidates for the Texas House.

Imagine yourself as one of these jurors. You are holding a former elected official accountable in a very powerful sense of the word. The jury holds not twelve ballots, but one potential criminal sentence that could add up to 99 years in prison.

And look at what the use of the jury does for the sentence. This was not a single judge rendering a verdict. An elected or even appointed judge, after all, might have a personal political grudge against another public official. Even the District Attorney can point out that the verdict was that of Texas citizens, not fellow politicians. As Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said,

“This case is a message from the people of the State of Texas that they want and expect honesty and ethics in their public officials…All people have to abide by the law.”

Again, the point is simply that the jury is quite the powerful tool in a democratic system. I suspect that for many readers, this seems obvious, but it’s important to remember that the U.S. is one of the very few countries in the world where lay citizens have this power–the authority to deliver criminal verdicts on their most powerful politicians. It truly is a remarkable power to place in the hands of the people.

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About jgastil

John Gastil is Head and Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in political deliberation and group decision making.
This entry was posted in Social/political impact of juries, Verdicts juries reach. Bookmark the permalink.

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