The jury system of USA;

Sudeep Mahajan
Addl. Advocate General, Haryana

Date : 04/03/2020 - Location : H.N. 1546, Sector 36-D, Chandigarh, Mob. 9814025102

The jury system of USA;

The Indian Perspective

In U.S.A. every person accused of a crime punishable by incarceration for more than six months has a constitutional right to a trial by jury. The right has been granted by the Sixth Amendment, the Seventh Amendment and the article three of the U.S. Constitution, which states, "The trial of all crimes... shall be by jury..." The U.S. Supreme Court in Baldwin Vs New York, 399 U.S. 66 (1970), ( case decided on June 22, 1970), has ruled that if imprisonment is for six months or less, trial by jury is not required, meaning there by that a state may choose whether or not to permit trial by jury in such cases.

The right to trial by jury in a civil case is addressed by the Seventh Amendment, which provides, "In suits in common law, where value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States than according to the rules of the common law". Though the early version of the 7th Amendment was introduced in U.S. Congress in 1789, the Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced the adoption of the Amendment on March 1, 1792. The Amendment however does not guarantee trial by jury in cases under the maritime law, in law suits against the Government itself and for many parts of patent claims. In all other cases the jury can be waived by the consent of the parties. The Amendment additionally guarantees a minimum of six member jury and maximum of twelve, in a civil suit. The amendment's 20 dollar threshold has not been the subject of much debate and still remains applicable despite the inflation that has taken place since 1792.

The jury system was primarily put in place to ensure honesty and transparency in the justice delivery system. The U.S. Supreme Court noted the importance of the jury rights in its 1968 ruling of Duncan Vs Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968), "Those who wrote our Constitution 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 framers of the Constitution strove to create an independent judiciary but insisted upon further protection against arbitrary action. Providing an accused with the right trial by a jury of his peers gave him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or the overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased or eccentric judge"

Jurors in some states (in U.S.A.) are selected through voter registration and driver's license lists. A form is sent to prospective juror to pre-qualify them by asking the recipient to answer questions about citizenship, disabilities, ability to understand the English language and whether they have any conditions that would excuse them from being a juror.

I happened to witness a civil jury trial, for three days in Los Angeles (L.A. California) "Superior Court". The trial was about wrongful/malefic dismissal of the Plaintiff from the employment of the Defendant Company. It is striking for a person steeped in traditional Indian mind set to notice that the jury members not only, very often come from humble social back grounds but also that they are completely untrained in law. When the jury members were being examined by the judge to see if they fulfilled the parameters of jury duty, it emerged that one of the jury members was earlier an employee of the defendant Company, who was dismissed by the defendant Company allegedly for not doing his duty as was expected of him. On concerns being expressed by the defendant Company's lawyer that this prospective jury member could be harbouring rancour against the defendant Company, the presiding judge chose to probe this possible jury member a little more than is usual. The judge asked him what kind of job he used to do when he was with the defendant Company. The potential Juror replied, to my utter amazement, that he used to wipe floors in the defendant Company. On being asked why was he let go, the potential Juror replied that it was alleged by his supervisor that he did not clean the floors well enough. He added that he had since moved on in life and he harboured no ill will towards the Company now. Surprisingly, his mere statement to this effect was good enough for the judge to rule that the man did not suffer from any bias and was good for jury duty. The all pervading trust in the system was too apparent to be missed by anyone. Despite this the jury was still falling short by one member, a lady, who was being awaited. The judge announced he had received a phone call from the lady who said her father was in hospital and therefore she was going to be late for the jury duty. The judge said that he has no option but to adjourn the court till after the lunch break in order to await her. I was curious to know whether the lady would join the jury duty after lunch and the trial would begin, so I waited out the lunch hour and was in court just as the court resumed after lunch. However, to the disappointment of everyone the judge said, he had called up the lady during the lunch break and she informed that her father was still in hospital and therefore she will not be unable to come for her jury duty. The court therefore had to be adjourned that day to work on her replacement.

As can be gathered from the narration above the members of a jury are ordinary folks, with no special qualifications at all and the only educational requirement is to be able to understand the English language. They come as young as men and women in their twenties, often dressed up in casuals, even inappropriately, to my traditional mindset, for court duty. Moreover the court staff, lawyers and members of the audience do not necessarily stand up to the every entry or exit of the judge but they would surely rise up the moment jury members start to pick up their respective bags and purses etc. in preparation to walk out of the court room. The all pervading humility and the trust and the informality of the entire system is instantly endearing and yet totally surprising to an Indian mind.

In a jury system judge only conducts the trial and announces the punishment/ penalty but it is the jury that actually announces the verdict that is; Guilty-not guilty or motion denied-motion allowed etc. It is this confusion in the roles of the judge and the jury that undid the jury system in India in 1956, after the famous Nanavati's case, of a naval officer, who was though found guilty of murder of a lover of his wife yet the jury also did not think it appropriate to give him the capital punishment for the crime committed.

Could the jury system succeed in India? In my humble opinion the jury system does bring in protection from whims, arbitrariness and at times, the over bearing attitudes of the presiding officers but do we have so much faith in the system and the unquestionable trust in the ability of common men and women, so as to elevate them to the position of a justice deliverers, is a question that we need to ask first.

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