This article is from "The Humanist: the Magazine of Critical Inquiry and Social Concern," Jan/Feb 1999 issue. Mr. Jackson has kindly given me permission to reprint his article here.
For those interested in the subject, here is [unfortunately "was" now -- I'm leaving this up in the hopes it will be renewed or rediscovered] another, well-researched paper on jury nullification. Also, here is a newspaper column which discusses jury nullification.
I welcome authors of similar papers and articles to send me their URLs -- I'm happy to link them up.
By Paul Jackson
In recent years, the religious right has become very active in the American political structure. Today, the people responsible for making laws are more often affiliated with extremist Christian organizations. This can represent a dangerous trend for the citizens of this country, who represent a variety of viewpoints.
As members of extremist organizations obtain more power in making laws, it is likely that this vocal minority will create laws that are not supported by the rest of the community. In an effort to do what they think is right, they will end up imposing their narrow views on our entire society.
What can be done when the government passes laws that you find repugnant? Is there any recourse available to the average citizen? Fortunately, there is an option: jury nullification.
The purpose of a jury system is to ensure that the will of the community is represented in enforcing the law. If a jury encounters a law it does not want to enforce, it can voice its disapproval through jury nullification. Jury nullification is the process by which a jury can negate laws it views unreasonable or unjust.
Even if a defendant is proven to be guilty of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury can still return a not-guilty verdict. In fact, a jury's role is not only to judge the merits of the evidence against the defendant but to also judge the merits of the laws it is being asked to enforce.
Jury nullification is a concept that dates back to the Magna Carta. America's founders were aware of the usefulness of the jury as an integral part of the check-and-balance system. The Fully Informed Jury Association often refers to this quote made by John Adams in 1771: "It is not only [the juror's] right, but his duty ... to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court."
A classic example of jury nullification in action is the role it played in ending Prohibition. As more and more juries refused to convict people who had clearly violated Prohibition laws, prosecutors were forced to stop handling these cases, thereby opening the door for the repeal of Prohibition.
Given the recent election results supporting the legalization of medicinal marijuana, one can assume that juries would be inclined to nullify any anti-drug laws being enforced against an ill person seeking health benefits of controlled use of marijuana.
In our society, the jury system often serves as the last line of defense against a tyrannical government bent on imposing its views on its people. As humanists, we should be sympathetic to fully informed jury initiatives because they represent an important issue involving freedom of thought. That people can decide for themselves which laws are truly worth enforcing is a necessary step in creating a just society free of political despotism.
Paul Jackson is a computer programmer in Louisville, Kentucky. He holds a master's degree in mathematics from the University of Louisville. More information on jury nullification can be found on the Fully Informed Jury Association's website: www.fija.org
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