Monday, June 17, 2019

Want Justice? Go With A Jury

By Chuck Green

By and by, you hear platitudes about America that have become almost trite, yet in reality hit upon cornerstones of our success as a country.  You might hear it said, “we are a nation of laws” or “we are founded on the rule of law.”  Reverence or respect for the law is important to success in all walks of life.  This is clearly true of criminal laws that govern our behavior in a complex society.  But, because Cowles and Thompson is more involved in helping people with civil law problems, this article will focus on the importance of the rule of law in civil matters.

The Search for “Justice”
We frequently see clients who find themselves traversing the legal system in situations or circumstances that are not of their design or intention – whether a traffic accident resulting in serious injury, a poor result from surgery, a professional accused of negligence, or a business deal gone wrong.  In any of those situations, clients want “justice.” This means they want to see the outcome determined by the law, the application of which requires addressing disputed facts.  For example,

  • • whose conduct was in accord with the law or standard of care;
  • • what does the contract say;
  • • who breached the contract;
  • • is the contract itself in compliance with the law; or
  • • what harm resulted from the questioned conduct? 

Sometimes the stakes are high and fortunes, businesses, reputations, life savings, or future livelihoods hang in the balance as these issues are determined. 

Life is busy and complicated as we interact with the millions around us, all seeking some measure of success. When something goes wrong, facts and circumstances are seen from an array of perspectives.  In a perfect world, facts are facts and truth is truth.  But our world is imperfect.  Because of the different perspectives, facts and circumstances can become obscured by the motivations, interests, or prejudices through which they are seen.  Our legal system seeks to shine a light on the facts and circumstances, determine truth as best as humans can do so, and then apply the “rule of law,” again as best as humans can do so.  This process is calculated to result in “justice.” 

Judge or Jury?
Whom do you want to decide the facts?  Our adversarial system requires each side to advocate their view of the facts.  If you have been involved in ligation or have even watched the local news these days, you know how different the facts can appear when presented through the lens of differing and biased motives.  So, the people who are directly involved are too close to the controversy, have the potential for bias, and their judgment may rightly not be accepted by the other side.

Regarding the facts:  should you prefer to defer to the people or popular opinion?  The best answer to this is to remember the old westerns that often themed episodes with a lynch mob crying for what they perceived as justice.  In those episodes, rumor, prejudice, and passion combined to distort the mob’s view of justice beyond recognition, and if permitted, resulted in the lynching of an innocent man. 

Or perhaps let the judge decide, for that indeed is a judge’s job to see that “justice” is done.  The vast majority of judges seek with the best of intentions to do their jobs as best they can and are committed to reflecting the best side of our legal system and its search for justice.  But, the judge is also a human being with his or her own viewpoints.  Judges are elected by the people and can be “political,” and we know very well the dim light of politics can obscure truth.  Because judges are imperfect human beings, despite very genuine and determined efforts, they may not be able to view the facts in clear light.  It seems the imperfection of human beings is the thorn in the side of justice, and we have but humans to choose from as deciders of facts. 

Experience through the millennia teaches us that when the most important of disputed facts must be decided, the best chance at true “justice” is when the decider is twelve ordinary citizens sitting as a jury.  Those twelve, with their differing perspectives -- when charged with the responsibility to find the truth from the facts presented and charged to do their best to divorce bias, prejudice, or sympathy from their considerations -- offer the best chance for truth to be found and therefore, justice to be done.  Ordinary citizens, though still burdened with the imperfections of their humanity, most often have a genuine sense of and strong desire for justice.  When charged as a jury, they carry the same heavy responsibility to find truth as does the judge, and they become invested in that goal.  The checks and balances within the twelve reduce the chance of human error, and this differentiates their collective judgment from that of a single judge. 

Yes, the right to have a jury decide the gravest and most important of disputes is an essential element in our justice system that enables us to say, “we are a nation of laws” and “we are founded on the rule of law.”  Even today, the fact that we are a nation of laws and can say we are founded on the rule of law is a reflection of a justice system that differentiates America from other countries.  And, a cornerstone of that system of justice is the twelve ordinary men and women who sit as jurors.

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