Trial by your peers keeps the law balanced

July is Juror Appreciation month

The Michigan Supreme Court has designated July, the month in which we Americans celebrate our nation’s independence, as “Juror Appreciation Month” recognizing the contribution made by individual jurors through jury service. That service is essential in perpetuating our system of trial by jury, as a bulwark of our free society. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the jury system is “The only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Anyone who has served on a jury may recall an instruction from the presiding Judge describing the jury trial as “an ancient tradition and part of our heritage.” Indeed, the right to trial by jury evolved from the Magna Carta of King John I, who in 1215 affirmed rights of noblemen against unlawful imprisonment by the King. While not intended as a protection for common folk against whims of the Sovereign, it sparked an idea that has endured and flourished, eventually supplanting “supernaturally based” forms of justice such trial by ordeal, combat and oath. A trial by jury for anyone accused of crime ultimately became a fundamental right recognized by English common law, at the root of American jurisprudence, as part of a ‘
‘strong and two-fold barrier... between the liberties of the people and the prerogative of the crown.’’ - Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). The ancient tradition of trial by jury became fully imbedded in American law through Article III and the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although procedural details vary state to state, the constitutions of each of the fifty states also guarantee a right to trial by jury. Article I, Section 20 of our own Michigan Constitution, mirrors the protections afforded by the federal Constitution, establishing the right to a “speedy, public trial before an impartial jury” in criminal cases. Rights, however, come with responsibilities. Thus, Lord Blackstone’s “barrier between the liberties of the people and the prerogative of the crown” is ineffectual in the absence of impartial jurors. In Michigan, prospective jurors’ names are randomly drawn from public rolls, county by county. However, of those who are called to serve, a very few are actually selected. Nonetheless, every call to duty is a disruption in our normal routines and sometimes viewed as an inconvenience. When weighed against the benefits derived both personally and to society, however, such disruptions are inconsequential. French statesman Alexis de Toqueville, upon touring a young America in the 1800’s astutely observed that the American jury system improved both the law and jurors by educating them regarding legal process, and their duty as citizens of a free society. As de Toqueville said, jury service “rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society.” Today, it is perhaps instructive to recall these words of the United States Supreme Court on the function and importance of jury service: “A right to jury trial is granted to criminal defendants in order to prevent oppression by the Government. Those who wrote our constitutions knew from history and experience that it was necessary to protect against unfounded criminal charges brought to eliminate enemies and against judges too responsive to the voice of higher authority... The jury trial provisions... reflect a fundamental decision about the exercise of official power -— a reluctance to entrust plenary powers over the life and liberty of the citizen to one judge or to a group of judges.
Fear of unchecked power... found expression in the criminal law in this insistence upon community participation in the determination of guilt or innocence.’’ - Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 155-56 (1968). We in the judiciary serving Mecosta and Osceola counties, therefore express our deep appreciation for the personal sacrifices local citizens have made and will make through jury service in the perpetuation of our free society.   Sincerely, Hon. Marco S. Menezes Hon. Susan H. Grant Hon. Ronald C. Nichols Hon. Scott Hill-Kennedy