Over the years, I have become a huge advocate for and supporter of the jury system. After presiding over hundreds of jury trials I’ve concluded that juries tend to get it right. The collective wisdom of 12 or even six citizens is truly impressive; to use an old phrase, the sum is greater than its parts.
Judges have the privilege of seeing thousands of citizens come through the courthouse doors. Further, we get to speak to them about how great our jury system is. Many judges develop their own way of thanking jurors for their service. One day, as I delivered my rather standard speech, I wondered what other judges say. I asked several current and former judges in the Harris County area to send me what they tell their juries.
What I got back was the greatest testimonial to the jury system that I could imagine. I have included their words—and mine—below, in honor of Jury Appreciation Week, which is celebrated during the first week of May in Texas.
Judge Robert K. Schaffer, 152nd District Court
While the jury system has many critics, I believe—and the litigants in front of you believe—that it’s the best system devised by humans to resolve civil claims short of handing each side six shooters and saying go take care of it on Main Street. This is a system that’s been in place in our country since before the country was founded. If some of the Founding Fathers—Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington—were to walk in the door right now, they would know exactly what we’re doing because we have been doing it much the same way as they did when our country was founded.
Sometimes justice is burdensome, and we appreciate your willingness to serve and voluntarily come down here. OK. I know it wasn’t really voluntary. But the fact of the matter is that you came and not everybody does. Coming down here to serve on a jury is what makes our system of government different from everybody else’s—and I believe so successful.
Judge Michael Landrum, 113th District Court
I know that the arrival of that jury summons in your mailbox may not have been an occasion for celebration. I doubt that any of you called family and friends to share the big news and invite them to share your joy. Yes, jury service can be an inconvenience, but please understand its importance. Our judicial system is critical to maintaining our liberty.
It is impossible to over emphasize the importance of jury trials. Imagine what it would be like if court cases were decided only by bureaucrats or those with undisclosed biases, prejudices, or personal interests. Among the complaints against the British Crown our founders expressed in the Declaration of Independence were the king’s refusal to establish independent courts and to observe the absolute trial by jury in the colonies—rights established in Britain under the Magna Carta nearly 300 years before Columbus set sail. The right to a trial by a jury is the only constitutional right mentioned both in the body of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That is a right guaranteed to each of us. John Adams spoke of jury trials as the heart and lungs of liberty.
Over the two centuries our country has existed, women and men have sacrificed in many ways to keep our union strong. We honor those who serve in uniform in our military, law enforcement, fire, and rescue. Many Americans have given their lives so that we may enjoy the right to a fair and impartial trial, in criminal and civil matters alike.
Jury service is our chance to contribute something to the sacred tradition for which so many have sacrificed: impartial justice under law. All of us benefit by your participation, even if it is difficult to fully appreciate its impact at a given time. I assure you that your presence in this courtroom today is important.
Grant Dorfman, former judge of the 334th District Court
Short of military service, jury duty is the one opportunity that most Americans have to serve their country—and without your willingness to serve here today, our justice system would very quickly come to a screeching halt. That system is by no means perfect, but it is my personal belief that it has served our country well and safeguarded all of our freedoms.
And so, I thank you for participating in that system of justice here today.
Judge Randy Wilson, 157th District Court
[Given after the jury is empaneled] I am fairly certain there were what could only be described as sighs of relief from those of you who did not get selected; perhaps some groans from those who did. I fully understand that. I have been through the exact same process that you have been through.
A few years ago, I was called for jury service and sent to a probate court where I was selected and served for three days in a jury trial. My initial reaction was probably not unlike yours, which was, “Oh, gosh. I’ve got other things to do,” but I ended up enjoying my service as a juror.
There have been a lot of studies done by social scientists of people who have served on juries and the results are remarkable. While people may not particularly want to serve, once they get on a jury, the studies find that jurors enjoy the process. They find it very meaningful.
There are at least two reasons why people find jury service to be rewarding. Number 1, the fact of the matter is, it’s just that important. The truth is that men and women have died for the right for us to be doing what we are doing here today. Our country was founded on self-government. This is where the rubber meets the road on self-government. We turn decisions over to citizens and we say, “Folks, we are going to empower you to decide these disputes.” This is just as important as voting. Jury service is that important that it’s part of the DNA of our country and is embedded in the Seventh Amendment of our Bill of Rights, the right to a trial by jury. There are very few countries that do what we are doing here today.
The second reason I think people find jury service to be rewarding is that it is memorable. I can illustrate that with a hypothetical. To those of you who were not selected, if I were to come back to you a month or two from now and say, “Remember that day a month or two ago when you came down for jury service?” You’d surely remember that the lawyers asked you a bunch of questions and the judge released you from service around noon. However, a month or two from now, if I were to say to you, “What did you do the next day,” you would stare at your feet, you would shuffle around, you would look off into space, but eventually you would say, “I don’t remember. I guess I went to work. I just don’t remember.”
The people who were selected for this jury will remember jury service for the rest of their lives. You can go to anybody right now and ask, “Have you ever served on a jury?”
“How long ago?”
“Fifteen years ago.”
“What kind of case was it?”
“It was a misdemeanor drug possession case. It was a child custody case. It was a—fill in the blank.”
“Well, tell me about it,” you might ask. Well, 15 years later, they can tell you all about it. “Here is what the case was about. Here is what the witnesses said. Here is what the lawyers said. Here is what the judge did. Here is what we, the jury, did.”
Jury service is not another day at the office. People remember jury service for the rest of their lives. It’s just that important.
Judge Keith Ellison, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas
Ladies and gentlemen: good afternoon and welcome. In summoning you to the courthouse today we are mindful that we have imposed an extraordinary inconvenience. Not just the fact that traffic is bad and parking is worse, not just the fact that the benches are uncomfortable. We know we’ve also impinged upon school time, work time, family time; disrupted car pools; interfered with ballet lessons and little league practice; spoiled meal times; put spouses and children in a difficult position. We know that. We acknowledge that and apologize for that. We do so not out of caprice. We do so because we have important work for you to do.
You’re going to be asked to adjudicate the respective rights and responsibilities of two litigants, plaintiff and defendant. The lawyers for those entities, the clients themselves, and many others have devoted long hours of work and terrific expense to getting ready for today. The case, as all cases, is important for other reasons too, well beyond the litigants themselves. If we do our job properly, our system—the means we choose to use to resolve disputes—will be in place for the next time and the time after that, and the time after that, just as it has been for 225 years. We really do reach back today, back to the generations of our forbearers, all the way back to the founders, and we join hands with them.
I think it might be worth a moment to reflect on just how central a place jury trials play in the American system of government. The right to a jury trial is the only constitutional right mentioned both in the body of the Constitution and in the Bill of Rights. It’s a prominent part of the Declaration of Independence. The founders had no doubt about the primacy of jury trials. John Adams said that jury trials are the hearts and the lungs of liberty. More recently Justice Scalia said, “When courts interpret the right to a jury trial, they touch the spinal cord of our democracy.”
I know many of you have already decided that there are obvious responses to all that. First, you will say jury trials might well have been important in the 18th century during that warm summer in 1776, when our founders drafted the Declaration of Independence, but surely, surely, it’s an anachronism today. It’s of no importance today.
I just wish you could go and speak with any of the millions of people around the world who have been imprisoned indefinitely without the hope of seeing a jury. I think they would persuade you very quickly that jury trials remain of primary importance. They can be discounted as not important only by people who know they will always have access to it.
I’m sure many of the rest of you will say, well, it may have been important then, and it may be important today, but not to me or anyone I care about. Again, I think you’re laboring under a misapprehension. The founders could have created a system where if you went to the right church, or had the right family name, or had a big enough bank account, or knew the right people, you were impervious to legal obligation. To their eternal credit and our eternal good fortune, they chose to do exactly the opposite.
Whatever our relationship outside the doors of this courtroom, within this courtroom, each person counts as one. No person counts as more than one and, most assuredly, no person counts as less than one. I wish no ill fortune upon any of you, but you could turn yourself into a litigant simply on the way home today with a traffic accident. You could be the plaintiff or the defendant or, in some cases, both.
And look around us at the names we know. Since I’ve been involved in this profession, two U.S. presidents came very close to going to prison, one from each party; one had to resign, one got impeached. The former attorney general of the state of Texas, the highest law enforcement officer in the state, someone I knew well, I liked, I respected, he served more than four years in federal prison. Don’t think for a minute that the law intrudes only in other people’s lives. I live in what I think is an okay neighborhood, but I’ll tell you I have seen neighbors of mine down here in court as defendants. The foremost reason seems to be that they allegedly did not report all their income on their tax return. Whatever the allegation, they’ll have their chance in front of a jury of their peers. But, these were people who, I suspect, were quite confident they would never be ensnared by the legal system. And I know well what I’m talking about because in this job I get sued all the time.
You may say, well, yeah, I can see you getting sued but not me. I’ve never done anything wrong. Number one, I doubt that. Number two, it’s not a question of whether you think you did anything wrong. It’s a question of whether somebody else thinks you’ve done something wrong. I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong in this job, but a lot of people think I have. And I’ll have my day in court at some point. But, please don’t ever satisfy yourself with the false comfort that you’ll never, ever, be in court.
Now, I’m sure there are at least diehards among you who, with all this, still believe that if the job is all that important then a judge certainly ought to be allowed to do it all by himself and not trouble any of you. That’s the biggest canard of all. I’m an egotistical person, even an arrogant person, but I don’t think for a moment I’m an adequate substitute for a jury.
For one thing, I live a very artificial life. I’m appointed for a lengthy tenure. I sit up here on the bench, people call me your honor all day long. I wear a funny costume. And after a while, judges begin to think we’re a lot smarter than we are. Aside from that, there’s only one me. In this case there will be 12 of you. Twelve of you equally situated, people against whom you can test your theories, bounce your ideas off, reason with, even argue with. I have none of that. I’m flying solo. But more importantly than that, I live in this circumscribed world that is artificial by any metric. You are out in the real world, raising your families, earning your livings, worshiping your god or choosing not to. You’re part of the machinery of American life in a way that a judge never will be. You are the people contemplated by the Declaration and the Constitution who our founders wanted to have decide important issues.
And if anyone of the founders walked in here today, Washington or Jefferson or Hamilton, Madison, they would understand perfectly what’s going on here. Because it’s changed very little in 11 generations. They would see a judge on the bench. They’d see counsel at opposing tables, performing that most sacred of duties, representing their clients’ every right and every obligation. And they would see men and women in the jury box to whom the case is pled, to whom the case is argued, who will then decide the case.
Now, I realize some of you are still feeling terribly, terribly sorry for yourselves. And you are thinking of all the other endeavors you wish you could turn to. Yes, we have asked you to sacrifice. I do not blink that fact. We have asked you to make a sacrifice, but let’s keep in mind the magnitude of this sacrifice, and the sacrifice that others have made. Since 9/11, 6,002 American troops have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, five more died last week, more will certainly die this week. Let’s take a moment to reflect on them:
Army Specialist Preston J. Dennis, age 23, of Redding, California; Army Private First Class Robert Friese, age 21, of Harrison, Michigan; Army Sergeant Adam Craig, age 23, of Cherokee, Iowa; Army Sergeant Kevin White, age 22, of Westfield, New York; Army Specialist Riley S. Spaulding, age 21, of Sheridan, Texas.
Now that is a sacrifice. That is a sacrifice. I know you’ll say that’s miles away, that’s worlds away from what we’re here for. I don’t think so. These young men, and many others, were asked to go to a place where their country needed them, when their country needed them. They didn’t get a chance to argue about the war. They didn’t get a chance to argue about how it should be prosecuted. They went where their country needed them. Today you’re in the same position. You didn’t get a chance to argue about whether we were going to have a trial, whether you would be in front of me, who the parties were going to be. You didn’t get to argue about any of that.
You’ve come where our country asked you to come, when our country asked you to come. How we wage wars and how we resolve disputes among citizens are two very different things, but both are integral to what it means to be an American. Both are integral to how America is viewed around the world. These brave young people thought our country was worth dying for. We have a chance, in this trial, to demonstrate that they were not wrong, that our country is special—as Lincoln said: earth’s last best hope.
We can demonstrate that our system of justice, for all its defects, is still not only the best in the world, but the best in the history of the world. I am not going to dishonor the memory of these young people by doing one inch less than my best. I hope you will join me.
Judge Dan Hinde, 269th District Court
We have, what I think, is the freest, most prosperous country in the history of the world. One of the reasons we are so free and are so prosperous is a concept called the rule of law—the idea that everyone, no matter what their station or class, is subject to the law and no one is above the law. Part of the way we ensure the rule of law is with juries.
Before juries, when people had disputes, they had to suit up in a coat of armor, pick up a lance, get on a charger, and joust with each other; or they had to walk through walls of fire; or they were dunked in rivers; or worst of all, they had to go in front of a judge who only spoke French.
But then back in the 1100s, an English king named Henry II started using juries in some of the cases tried in his courts. Juries became so popular that by the time the English nobles rebelled against his son, King John, and forced John to agree to the Magna Carta, one of the rights the nobles forced King John to guarantee was the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers.
Jury trials continued to gain popularity in England. When the English colonized the eastern seaboard of North America, they exported the English legal system—including jury trials—to the colonies. And as you might expect, jury trials continued to grow in popularity in the colonies.
Now, we’re all familiar with the Declaration of Independence. We’ve all read the sublime opening paragraphs—“When in the course of human events … ”—but the final two thirds of the Declaration is what is called the “Bill of Particulars.” This is the list of all the grievances the colonists had against England. And one of the reasons listed in the Bill of Particulars for fighting the Revolutionary War was that King George was denying us our right to trial by jury.
So if you think about it, the heroes of Valley Forge and Bunker Hill and the Battle of Yorktown all fought, bled, and some even died to restore our right to trial by jury. And when you read the Constitution of the United States, in three different places it guarantees the right to trial by jury. That is how important the right to a jury trial is to our nation.
It is just as important to our state. If you look at the Texas Declaration of Independence, it also has a Bill of Particulars. And one of the reasons listed for declaring independence from Mexico is that Santa Anna was denying us our right to a trial by jury. So once again, if you think about it, the heroes of the Alamo, Goliad, and the Battle of San Jacinto all fought, bled, and some of them even died to restore our right to a trial by jury. And sure enough, if you read the Texas Constitution, it also explicitly guarantees the right to trial by jury. That is how important the right to a jury trial is to our state.
But the fight to preserve our right to trial by jury did not end with the victories at Yorktown and San Jacinto. Every day we continue the work of those heroes to preserve this right for our fellow citizens. It is not enough for us to guarantee it. We cannot have jury trials if we do not have jurors. We need good people like you to come down every day to perform your jury service and serve on a jury. So, thank you for answering your summons and coming down to perform your jury service.
If you think about it, serving on a jury is the closest thing you will ever experience to true “government by the people.” In elections, you get to pick your decision makers. But when you serve on a jury, you are the decision makers. The court cannot render a judgment in the case until the jury gives its verdict.