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Jury, trial by

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Description: Legal process in which a group of citizens sworn as jurors hears evidence presented at trial and then collectively decides on the accused's culpability for a crime or civil offense.


Significance: Supreme Court rulings affirm the importance of trial by jury as a protection against government oppression of the accused and as an avenue for citizen participation in the democratic process.


Article III, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution provides the right to trial by jury for all crimes except impeachment, and the Seventh Amendment grants this right in civil cases involving twenty dollars or more. The Sixth Amendment provides the right to be tried by an impartial jury. In Palko v. Connecticut (1937), the Supreme Court interpreted these constitutional provisions as applicable only in federal trials, reasoning that trial by jury was not a fundamental right and therefore was not applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause. This meant states were not required to provide jury trials but could choose to do so. The Court reversed its position in Duncan v. Louisiana (1968), ruling that trial by jury in criminal cases is a fundamental right applicable to the states. The Court's reasoning in Duncan emphasized the importance of jury trials as part of due process and as a significant aspect of participatory democracy. In subsequent cases, the Court clarified the scope of the right to trial by jury, finding it applicable in any case involving a minimum possible sentence of six months of incarceration and in some cases with a shorter penalty. However, the Court did not extend the Seventh Amendment requirement of trial by jury in civil cases to the states, instead leaving state governments to decide this. Despite the Court's recognition of the importance of trial by jury, minors in the juvenile justice system lack this right. The Court, in the case In re Gault (1967), reasoned that because juvenile court proceedings are not adversarial (in contrast to adult courts), jury trials are not necessary. However, juveniles tried in adult court gain the right to trial by jury. Historically, jurors had the right to decide questions of both law and fact, but in Sparf and Hansen v. United States (1899), the Court restricted jurors to deciding issues of fact. In their capacity as fact finders, jurors in criminal trials decide whether the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty as charged, a requirement the Court noted in In re Winship (1970) is intended to protect against erroneous convictions. Jurors in most civil cases use the less stringent “preponderance of the evidence” standard. In Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968), the Court emphasized the role of jurors as the conscience of the community.



Further Reading

  • Abramson, Jeffrey. We, the Jury. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
  • Del Carmen, Rolando V. Criminal Procedure: Law and Practice. 6th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004.
  • Finkel, Norman J. Commonsense Justice: Jurors’ Notions of the Law. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Jonakait, Randolph N. The American Jury System. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • Kalven, Harry, Jr., and Hans Zeisel. The American Jury. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
  • Litan, Robert E., ed. Verdict: Assessing the Civil Jury System. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993.
  • Schwartz, Victor E., et al. Safeguarding the Right to a Representative Jury: The Need for Improved Jury Service Laws. Washington, D.C.: National Legal Center for the Public Interest, 2003.