The First Battle/Life of William Jennings Bryan/The Jury System

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One of the questions which has been for some time discussed, and which is now the subject of controversy, is, "Has the jury system outlived its usefulness?"

I think I voice the opinion of most of those present when to the question I answer an emphatic No.

To defend this answer it will not be necessary to recall the venerable age of the system, its past achievements, or the splendid words of praise which have been uttered in its behalf. It finds ample excuse for its existence in the needs of this time.

The circumstances which called it into life have passed away and many of its characteristics have been entirely changed, but never, I am persuaded, in the history of the English speaking people, has the principle which underlies the trial by jury been more imperatively demanded than it is today.

This is an age of rapid accumulation of wealth, and the multiplication of corporations gives to money an extraordinary power.

One million dollars in the hands of one man or one company will outweigh, in the political and social world, ten times that sum divided among a thousand people. Can the temple of justice hope to escape its polluting touch without some such barrier like that which the jury system raises for its protection? Is there not something significant in the direction from which much of the complaint of the system comes from?

If the question, "Shall the jury be abandoned or retained?" were submitted to a vote, we would find prominent among the opposing forces the corporate influences, the wealthy classes, and those busy citizens to whom jury service, or even the duty of an elector, is a burden.

While the great mass of its supporters would be found among those who are compelled to fight the battle of life unaided by those powerful allies—social position, political influence and money—men whose only sword is the ballot, and whose only shield, the jury. The jury system is not perfect—we do not look for perfection in government—but it has this great advantage, that if the verdict falls to one side of the straight line of the law it is usually upon the side of the poorest adversary.

All stand equal before the law, whether they be rich or poor, high or low, weak or strong; but no system has yet been devised which will insure exact justice at all times between man and man.

We choose not between a perfect system and an imperfect one, but between an imperfect system and one more imperfect still. And if the scales of justice cannot be perfectly poised, the saafety of society demands that they tip most easily toward the side of the weak.

Faith in trial by jury implies no reflection upon the integrity of the bench. We recall with pardonable pride the names of our illustrious judges whose genius and learning have given luster to our profession and whose purity and probity have crowned it with glory.

But they won their distinction in expounding the law and left the decision of the facts to those fresh from contact with the busy world.

If to the present duties of the judge we add those now discharged by the jury, is it not possible that the selection of a judge will be secured because of his known sympathies? Will not the standard be so lowered that we may see upon the bench an agent instead of an arbiter?

In what position will the suitor be who finds, when called before a biased tribunal, that he has neither peremptory challenge nor challenge for cause. No more fatal blow could be struck at our national welfare than to give occasion for the belief that in our courts a man's redress depends upon his ability to pay for it.

If the jury can guard the court room from the invasion of unfair influences it will be as valuable for what it prevents as for what it gives.

Time does not admit of extended reference to those faults in the system which give occasion for just criticism, faults which its friends are in duty bound to prune away from it. The requirement of an unanimous verdict causes many mistrials. In civil causes, where a decision follows the evidence, it is difficult to see why substantial justice would not be done by a majority, or, at most, a two-thirds majority verdict; but we cannot abandon the old rule in criminal cases without trespassing on the sacred right of the accused to the benefit of every reasonable doubt; for a divided jury, in itself, raises a doubt as to his guilt. The law recently passed making it a misdemeanor for a man to ask for appointment as a juror, or for an attorney to seek a place for a friend, is a step in the right direction.

Between a partisan juror and a professional juror it is only a choice between evils. If to fill the panel with bystanders means to fill it with men standing by for the purpose of being called, we are ready for a law which will compel the sheriff to seek talesmen beyond the limits of the court house. Any change, the aim of which is to compel the selection of men of ordinary intelligence and approved integrity as jurors, will be acceptable to the people. But now that all men read the news, the information thus acquired should no longer render them incompetent for jury service. It is a premium upon ignorance which we cannot afford to pay. Instead of summoning a juryman for a whole term we should limit his service to one or two weeks. This would lighten the burden without impairing the principle. To that argument, however, which assumes that business men can afford no time for jury service there can be but one answer, No government can long endure unless its citizens are willing to make some sacrifice for its existence.

In this, our land, we are called upon to give but little in return for the advantages which we receive. Shall we give that little grudgingly? Our definition of patriotism is often too narrow.

Shall the lover of his country measure his loyalty only by his service as a soldier? No! Patriotism calls for the faithful and conscientious performance of all of the duties of citizenship, in small matters as well as great, at home as well as upon the tented field.

There is no more menacing feature in these modern times than the disinclination of what are called the better classes to assume the burdens of citizenship. If we desire to preserve to future generations the purity of our courts and the freedom of our people, we must lose no opportunity to impress upon our citizens the fact that above all pleasure, above all convenience, above all business, they must place their duty to their government; for a good government doubles every joy and a bad government multiplies every sorrow. Times change but principles endure. The jury has protected us from the abuse of power.

While human government exists the tendency to abuse power will remain. This system, coming down from former generations crowned with the honors of age, is today and for the future our hope.

Let us correct its defects with kindly hands, let us purge it of its imperfections and it will be, as in the past, the bulwark of our liberties.