Why the Supreme Court reaffirmed the sanctity of jury deliberations

Open meeting norms and “sunshine” laws help ensure that the public can know what’s happening when government officials meet. But what about when lay citizens are the government? When a jury deliberates together, it does so in private. Why the difference?

The best argument I’ve seen is was made by the former federal judge, William Dwyer. His book, In the Hands of the People, traces juries back through history to conclude that the jury serves as much a sacred and symbolic role as a bureaucratic and judicial one. In this view, the gathering of a jury bears some resemblance to the gathering of cardinals to decide on the next pope: Their decision must be final, so it’s best not to know what went on in the room.

For the same reason, Dwyer was no fan of post-trial interviews with jurors. When their verdict is read, their service should be done. Appeals of their criminal verdict (or judgments in a civil case) may overturn the jury’s findings, but not based on sifting through its deliberations.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court quietly affirmed this view of the jury. As the New York Times reported, Justice Sonia Sotomayor

said that courts had taken differing approaches to the sanctity of jury deliberations but that Congress had instructed federal courts to bar the use of almost all evidence from jury deliberations, with very narrow exceptions.

There are exceptions to this principle. Rule 606 of the Federal Rules of Evidence specifies those exceptions, which conjure up images of jury deliberations gone horribly wrong. Under this rule,

A juror may testify about whether: (a) extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention; (b) an outside influence was improperly brought to bear on any juror; or (c) a mistake was made in entering the verdict on the verdict form.

Notice that those exceptions aren’t about the dynamics of the jury’s deliberation.Rather, they’re about the introduction of contaminants–evidence or influence from “outside” the trial (or, in the third case, an error on the proverbial scorecard).

The bottom line is that Congress and the Supreme Court agree that juries are meant to do their work in private. Jurors are not elected officials whose public deliberation might signal their competence (or the inverse); instead, they are private citizens called into public duty and who perform that role (generally) quite well in a system that protects them from the glare of cameras. Jurors continue to remain outside the spotlight, even in an age of sensationalism and CourtTV. That is how it should be.

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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 Conducting trials, Deliberation on juries. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why the Supreme Court reaffirmed the sanctity of jury deliberations

  1. I almost feel like jurors should be anonymous some how. It would help address many of the issues with tampering or contamination. Think about it, the news would not be able to approach these people, and they could make an honest decision about a case without fear of reprisal from the public. It seems that it’s the only way to truly make things fair.

    • jgastil says:

      I remember being surprised that jury records were so public, but I’ve come to accept that it’s a necessary part of the imperative for open government. Jury tampering is exceedingly rare, likely less common than “tampering” with judges in various ways, particularly elected judges. The fact that juries deliberate in private is one good way of balancing the need for privacy/anonymity with the need for openness.

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