Let me explain the question. In the U.S., it is common place to hear people express enthusiasm for the fact that many cases are determined by juries.

Such enthusiasm may be motivated by the efficiency/accuracy of jury trials: that they are more likely to find the true facts and can more accurately determine whether the defendant is guilty (liable) or not.

Such enthusiasm can also be motivated by seeing jury trials as an end in itself: it allows people to participate directly in the judicial system and is more democratic, and thus is more desirable (irrespective of the efficiency/accuracy of jury trials).

What is the main motivation behind the enthusiasm? The true answer is likely a mix, and the exact weights may differ by layman vs legal experts. I’m curious what you think. Thank you for your thoughts.

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    I'm not sure why you characterize "it allows people to participate directly in the judicial system" as an example of "trial by jury as an end in itself". Surely allowing people to participate directly in the judicial system is also a means to an end. Most people don't like being on juries. – Brian Feb 3 at 0:52
  • @Brian I slightly modified the question to somewhat explain that. The reasoning can stop in two possible places. 1) jury trial is democratic and thus good for that reason alone. 2) jury trial is democratic, and jury trials happens to be better than judge trials in terms of accuracy/efficiency, so jury trials are good. For people who use reasoning 1) I call it “an end in itself”. – J Li Feb 3 at 1:28
  • "it is common place to hear people express enthusiasm for the fact that many cases are determined by juries." I would politely suggest that probably fewer than 5% of the general population of potential jurors has ever given much thought one way or the other to whether juries are good thing or why, apart from parroting what they are told in pre-service videos or speeches made when they are called for jury duty which emphasize the democratic purpose and the necessity of their involvement to make the system work for everyone, appealing to civic duty. And support is not unanimous by any means. – ohwilleke Feb 3 at 1:55
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    @ohwilleke I agree. The enthusiasm I hear probably come from less than 5% of the population :) – J Li Feb 3 at 5:05

The reality, and to some extent the conventional wisdom, is that jury trial as less accurate (and jury trials are without a doubt, in modern times, less efficient).

But there is also a widespread belief that jury trials are less biased than bench trials. Judges are probably more accurate but are perceived as being biased against most kind of criminal defendants, so that the average result is worse of innocent defendants, even though jury trials probably cause more guilty defendants to go free than they would otherwise. The empirical evidence is mixed and is system and context specific (judges might be biased in favor of law enforcement defendants, for example). But the revealed preferences of criminal defendants show an overwhelming belief that the average results of jury trials for them are better than the average results of bench trials for them.

The fear of judicial bias also illuminates the circumstances under which the British retain civil jury trials (e.g. in eminent domain valuation proceedings, where judges are seen as having something of a conflict of interest since their department's budget competes for scarce funds with those funds used to pay eminent domain claims). Sometimes being fair is more important than being right, and that is what the jury system strives to do.

The belief that judges have some inherent biases overlaps with the notion that the jury may bring a broad range of insight into interpreting the factual presentation and the credibility of witnesses based upon their wider range of personal experiences.

The removal of the class and occupational biases of judges generally from the system also does have a democratic aspect to it. It gives granular active control of a key form of state use of power involuntarily over someone to the democratic populace making the system more democratic.

Juries also turn a decision made by a lone judge (because unlike civil law systems, common law judges with only rare exceptions conduct bench trials individually, rather than in panels of judges), guarding against the idiosyncrasies of any one individual decision maker. Also, as a practical matter, in the U.S. and pre-modern England, there was a scarcity of legally trained judges so adopting a system calling for far more judges per capita, as civil law legal systems of Continental Europe did, would have been expensive, and juries made collective decision making possible, leveraging scarce judicial resources.

Another important facet of this is jury nullification which gives a jury the practical, although often not formally acknowledged, power to disregard the law when its application seems unfair. The revolutionary Americans figures that their fellow citizens would be less likely to convict them of wrongs against an unjust state than British appointed judges had been to do so, and in practice, even in modern times, juries have often been lenient with politically motivated criminal defendants charged by the state with crimes.

It also reflects a political calculus on the part of the judiciary collectively. In a bench trial, the public will seek to hold the judge responsible for decisions with which it disagrees and to blame the judiciary collectively for bad decisions. A jury trial deflects blame from the judge to an effectively anonymous and ephemeral group of ordinary citizens so that decisions perceived as bad don't taint the long term reputation of the judge with the public. More generally, bad decisions in high profile court cases can undermined the legitimacy of the government as a whole if made by a judge, but not nearly so much, if made by a jury.

Finally, there are decisions that mosts often come up in tort cases (such as personal injury cases, defamation cases, and money claims for violations of civil rights) where a big component of any damage award involves compensatory non-economic damages (e.g. for pain and suffering and damage to dignity) and non-compensatory punitive damages claims, where a jury serves what amounts to an opinion survey-like role by translating intangible harms into fixed sums of money in a way that reflects community opinion, where there is no easy way to define that sum of money in a flexible way to cover myriad situations that a judge can follow in a principled way.

  • This is a really helpful answer and I appreciate it. I meant to ask what position layman take, though. I am slightly skeptical that non legal experts would think through these arguments to justify jury trials as “the means to an end”. I also am not sure if these arguments — such as juries can correct judge biases — are well established by empirical evidence. Yes, judges are probably more hardened and less likely sympathetic to criminal defendants. At the same time, juries have also been criticized on grounds of racial biases, etc. So in the end, the comparison is about the degree of bias. – J Li Feb 3 at 1:35
  • I@JLi I've reviewed the literature on jury accuracy and bias in another answer. Maybe I can find it and link it. – ohwilleke Feb 3 at 1:43
  • Looks like you found it: law.stackexchange.com/questions/30169/… – ohwilleke Feb 3 at 1:52

Such enthusiasm may be motivated by the efficiency/accuracy of jury trials: that they are more likely to find the true facts and can more accurately determine whether the defendant is guilty (liable) or not.

Having served on a jury many years ago, I definitely agree with that statement (subject to not being highly unusual or highly technical crimes).

We were a dozen people with very different backgrounds: richer/poorer, well/poorly educated, younger/older, bookworms/partiers, etc.

While reviewing the testimony, several times there were statements that most of us would have rejected for being unbelievable or highly exaggerated, but which were explained to us as being quite reasonable by other members of the jury, who had themselves experienced similar situations.

I really doubt an individual judge would have understood the facts and linked the events together as well as we did collectively.

Yes, I know it's the lawyers' job to clarify details during testimony, but lawyers aren't perfect, and again, as individuals, they might not have realized that there was anything to clarify.

  • "lawyers aren't perfect, and again, as individuals, they might not have realized that there was anything to clarify." as I lawyer with about twenty-five years of experience, I can say that I fully agree with this statement. Lawyers are definitely not perfect. And, in after jury trial interviews I've had with jurors when possible (they usually are), I'd say that instances of neither counsel or the judge realizing that there was something to clarify on some important issue comes up probably 1/3rd to 1/2 of the time. – ohwilleke Feb 3 at 20:31
  • @ohwilleke, "after jury trial interviews": Canadian (Ontario for sure) juries are quite different from American. Before closing, we're not allowed to discuss any aspect of the case with anyone, including fellow jury members. During deliberation we can discuss things with fellow jurors, but only when every member can hear; no private discussions or groups. After the verdict we can't discuss any details of the trial itself that the public couldn't have observed. And even now, a couple of decades later, I can't provide a real example in my answer above. – Ray Butterworth Feb 3 at 21:14
  • Historically, the rules were the same in the U.S., but in Colorado, where I practice, there was a conscious effort to change those rules about twenty-five years ago that has relaxed those rules and the changes have, by and large, been a big improvement. The biggest change that has helped is allowing jurors to submit questions to witnesses when the lawyers and judge have asked all the questions that they have for a witness, which some juries use a great deal and others use only sparingly. – ohwilleke Feb 4 at 4:34
  • @ohwilleke, "The biggest change that has helped is allowing jurors to submit questions to witnesses". One thing I can mention (since it concerns the public part of the trial) is a credit card bill that would have supported or discredited one witness's testimony. I kept waiting for it to appear, but strangely, neither side presented it. – Ray Butterworth Feb 4 at 13:04

Americans tend to like Jury duty... until the recieve a summons for Jury Duty. The reason for the Jury System is that in each trial (no matter which legal system you go with) there are two fundamental questions being asked: "What does the Law say (I.E. What does the accuser need to prove in order for this to be a crime/tort for damages?)?" and "What do the facts say (in this particular instance, what facts are prove via induced evidence?)?"

In the question of Law, this will require a person steeped in law to actually go over the various statutory laws and case law published for that jurisdiction related to the crime/tort in question and find what rules apply, determin which evidence is admissiable, determin which questions are objectionable, ect. This needs an understanding of the law and what is and is not permissible and in both Civil and Common Law systems, this always falls to a judge (Case law is not as strong of a thing as it is in common law, where it is a defining feature... more so than Jury Systems.).

However, in questions of fact, the idea is that any impartial person can listen to too stories and see the evidince presented and determin which story is more likely to be true. You don't need a law degree to understand evidence in determining the case. With that in mind, Common law decided to make it a democratic feature where your own class (i.e. Peers in Nobility) in the European Nobility System should determine your guilt or innocence, not a lone judge who isn't entirely impartial (Note: As Common Law was developed in British Law and is not unique to America, at this point, Peers would include nobility rank. In the U.S. everyone has the same legal status and thus Peer rank only comes up in Court Martials where the Jury must always be of equal or superior rank and must include a percentage of Enlisted personel for Enlisted Members of the Military. Beyond that, they must be made of locals to the crime in question). The idea is better than three judges (as is common in Civil Law) a jury of a larger pannel of impartial citizens (usually 12) is better at determining guilt and innoncence. Add to the fact that getting 12 people to agree on anything is quite impossible, so if 12 people look at the story and say "you definately did this" than likely you did.

The one uniqueness of American Common Law over other Common Law nations (About 1/4th of the world is under Common Law Jurisidiction btw) is that in the U.S. we use juries for both Criminal and Civil Tort Trials, where as the rest of the Common Law Jurisidictions use it only for Criminal Cases. Additionally, in the U.S. it's not uncommon for bench trials where the Defendant (and only the Defendant as jury trial is the sole right of the defense) may request a Bench Trial over a jury trial (If the government is being sued, it will always take a Bench Trial as Americans tend to have a natural mistrust of the government from the outset.). This could be because the case is a national news story and the community is strongly divided over the issue such that a judge might seem more reasonable OR the case involves such nuances of specific contract and regulatory law that the common folk seated in the jury box would be snoring during the case because of all the technical legal jargon.).

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    "Americans tend to like Jury duty.." maybe after the fact, but almost everybody tries to avoid jury duty beforehand. – ohwilleke Feb 3 at 0:23
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    Thank you for the answer. I must say I do not find the idea that “a randomly selected set of people is better at determining facts” to be natural. In almost every other area in the society (apart from voting for political office), we almost always look for professionals. We do not ask randomly selected people to cure our illness, patrol our borders, teach our children, make scientific discoveries, or even cook our food (we rather have chefs). Is there empirical evidence showing that this hypothesis has merit? – J Li Feb 3 at 1:49
  • @JLi: Actually, and you'll have to forgive me as I don't have a study in front of me, but there was a study that compared the aquittal rate of France's Civil Law System to a Common Law System and found jury trials have a slightly higher tendencey to aquit than Civil Law systems. Given that the U.S. Legal System ideally opperates on the maxim "It is better that 1,000 guilty men go free than a single innocent man spend a day in jail" this is a benificial tool. – hszmv Feb 3 at 12:41
  • @JLi: And it's not that we find a random group of people to be better at determining facts, but rather we find that a random set of people are "no better" then an educated set. And every jury has a lot of work put in to eliminate the bias for one side of the case. There's a complimentary set of "alternative jurors" incase a jury member cannot hear the case to the end and hundreds of people are summoned to potentially hear a single case because there are so many things that can disqualify a jury. Both sides have a right to object to a potential juror AND a judge may dismiss on his own. – hszmv Feb 3 at 12:47
  • @JLi: Net effect is that of the 24 (12 jurors and 12 alts) selected, three seperate parties, two of whom are in a defacto disagreement have said that these 24 people are going to be unbiased. Disqualifying information includes anything from familiarity with the court system (including past criminal history), to consuming local news daily, to certain political beliefs, to even familial obligations. – hszmv Feb 3 at 12:52

The primary motivation is our constitutional framework: it is a protected right, in the Bill of Rights. I will skip the historical pre-revolutionary background, which is better asked on a history site. Things that are in The Constitution are (or have been) enthusiastically supported as being beyond question.

The second runner-up motivation is the "individual vs. state" problem (ask on History SE). The police, prosecution and judiciary are agents of the state, only the jurors are agents of "the people". The premise is that judges, as agents of the state, are biased in favor of the interests of the state.

The third is that there is a general distrust of judge-made law, so we don't actually like the common law unless for a political purpose we want to cite some mythical entity "the common law" referring to some subset of ancient English common law. The reason is that ordinary people can't possibly know judge-made law, and that makes law-abidingness very difficult. If ordinary people (jurors) use common sense in deciding what the law is, and set aside the additions of judges, then justice will be better served. That is, people believe that they will get the outcome they want with a jury trial. Of course, their attorney may try to convince them otherwise.

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    I would quibble with the third point. The belief that ordinary people decide what the law is isn't very widespread and the concern about judge made law while doctrinally important for conservative legal scholars, isn't widely held in the general public. I also don't agree that the public widely shares a concern about the unknowability of judge made law. – ohwilleke Feb 3 at 0:22
  • "Things that are in The Constitution are (or have been) enthusiastically supported as being beyond question." Often this is not so. The Electoral College is a case in point. The equal representation of each state in teh Senate is another, many people have long objected to each. Indeed the EC has never functioned as it was originally envisioned. – David Siegel Feb 3 at 0:27
  • @DavidSiegel your comment is interesting. Would you venture to say that people pick and choose what they like about the constitution, and when they like it, they use the constitution as the “excuse”? (Personally, I still find @user6726’s point very plausible, even though there are exceptions). – J Li Feb 3 at 7:43
  • @J Li I would say that many people do not like every aspect of the Constitution, and do not like it automatically because it is in the C. I wouldn't call it an excuse, exactly. Most people in the US do accept the C as the way we do things. Many like most of it, but would change some parts if they could. People are taught to regard it with some reverence. People used to a jury system tend to accept it as "just the way it is" often not aware of its history, which is complex. It was not originally a protection for people against state. – David Siegel Feb 3 at 14:59

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