The most stunning and successful experiment in direct popular sovereignty in all history is the American jury. Properly constrained by its duty to follow the law, the requirement of jury unanimity, and evidentiary rules, the American jury has served the republic well for over two hundred years. It is the New England town meeting writ large. It is as American as rock ‘n’ roll.
The American jury “must rank as a daring effort in human arrangement to work out a solution to the tensions between law and equity and anarchy.” No other legal institution sheds greater insight into the character of American justice. Indeed, as an instrument of justice, the civil jury is, quite simply, the best we have. “[T]he greatest value of the jury is its ability to decide cases correctly.” We place upon juries no less a task than discovering and declaring the truth in each case. In virtually every instance, these twelve men and women, good and true, rise to the task, finding the facts and applying the law as they, in their collective vision, see fit. In a very real sense, therefore, a jury verdict actually embodies our concept of “justice.” Jurors bring their good sense and practical knowledge into our courts. Reciprocally, judicial standards and a respect for justice flow out to the community. The acceptability and moral authority of the justice provided in our courts rest in large part on the presence of the jury. It is through this process, in which the jury applies rules formulated in light of common experience to the facts of each case, that we deliver the best justice our society knows how to provide. . . .
For more information about Judge Young’s Donahue Lecture (which served as the basis for this article) please click here.