Monday, July 6, 2009

Unanimous Juries: Inconvenient Constitutional Guarantees versus Efficient Dictatorship

Oregon is one of only two states that allow non-unanimous juries in criminal trials. In today's New York Times article ("In Two States, a Lower Bar for Conviction"), Clatsop County DA Josh Marquis points out that it's simply more efficient to ignore the jury holdouts and avoid a hung jury with Oregon's 10-2 jury rule.

He is absolutely correct. It turns out that preserving our constitutional rights isn't very efficient. Despite that, our Constitution protects us from the government in several inefficient ways. For instance, the government can't take property without due process. It would definitely be easier if the government could take your home without those pesky imminent domain proceedings.

And surely it would be easier if the government could take away your guns; it's much more efficient to police the public when they are unarmed.

Our state and federal constitutions are here to protect individuals from the government. Sometimes that's inconvenient for the government. Too bad. Harry Truman said it best at a lecture at Columbia University in 1959: "Whenever you have an efficient government you have a dictatorship."

Photo: The Jury by John Morgan, an 1861 painting of a Britsh Jury


  1. My perception of juries in general is that they consist of ill-informed people who are then provided with only a partial set of facts on which to base decisions, and who have little if any real chance to decide the case based on a complete set of facts instead of the rhetorical manipulations of the two teams of attorneys. Even outside of celebrity trials, the relative skill of the lawyers often outweighs the value of the evidence--hardly a recommendation for justice. A trial becomes a contest of exaggerations and half-truths between the two teams of attorneys to see which can most effectively manipulate the people with the limited set of facts deemed admissible for them to make their judgments on. I know that systems where judges determine the guilt or innocence as well as determining sentencing have their own problems, but my experience as a juror has been thoroughly disillusioning, and more or less a complete waste of time.

    That said, I agree with you that the goals of striving for efficiency and striving to preserve civil rights are going to prove incompatible in many situations.

  2. Being a juror in a criminal trial is where the rubber meets the road regarding individuals holding the government accountable--even more so than voting in an election.

    It turns out there are thousands of jury trials every day across the country, and they are quite a bit different than how the media portrays the high-profile ones.

    Regarding civil juries, here's a helpful link: