I was wondering how the word "peers" has come to be defined legally the way it has.

legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com states that legally the word is held to mean:

This has been interpreted by courts to mean that the available jurors include a broad spectrum of the population, particularly of race, national origin and gender. Jury selection may include no process which excludes those of a particular race or intentionally narrows the spectrum of possible jurors. It does not mean that women are to be tried by women, Asians by Asians, or African Americans by African Americans.

But Wikipedia supplies this definition for the non-legal usage:

People who are equal in such respects as age, education or social class, group, colleague, etc., as in peer group or social peer-to-peer processes

So the legal definition (the more diverse a group you can get the better) is pretty much the exact opposite of how the word is used in non-legal settings (the more exclusive and same-y the group is the closer peers they are). Has this always been so? What arguments are put forth to validate this weird interpretation? And how does it work in edge cases? Are citizens considered peers of foreign nationals, or do you need to ship in foreign nationals to stand as the jury for a non-citizen (or maybe they are not granted this right in the first place)?

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    This is an interesting theoretical question! While I doubt it is actually the case anywhere, it would be interesting if someone could, in theory, claim "I'm a university-educated Irishman between the ages of 30 and 40 who loves football and has never been to Boston in the fall. I demand to be tried by a true jury of my peers consisting of university-educated Irishmen between the ages of 30 and 40 who love football and have never been to Boston in the fall. No women, Scotsmen, people who don't like football, or dropouts on my jury!" Oct 29, 2018 at 21:35

1 Answer 1


The notion of a peer for purposes of the jury is someone who "walks in the same shoes" as the defendant or litigants. A freeman was to be juried by other freemen, a Peer of the Realm by other (capital P) Peers, a landsman by other landholders, and a marine by other sailors.

The ancient origins of a judgment by jury were rooted in removing allegations by the defendant, alleging unfairness of the process, since the defendant himself was a party to the selection of those who would weigh his actions before the law and mete out punishments, the defendant could have confidence that he wasn't being railroaded.

In the USA, we've done away with the codified, defined social definitions such as peerage and royalty and owned/indentured vs. free...so we are all, as far as the law defines, equal peers.

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    I wonder, back when sailors were exclusively judged by other sailors did they try to find a diverse group of sailors, like in the current edition of the law, or not?
    – Jonathon
    Nov 22, 2015 at 0:10
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    It's quite interesting that the classical definition essentially came down to class. Mar 7, 2023 at 23:28

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