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What is “A jury of one’s peers”?

February 24, 2013

There are times when you have a great idea and you find that someone else has been there before you.  Today’s definition of ” a  jury of one’s peers” and “justice before the law” seems to be primarily understood to mean a jury of randomly selected citizens who meet the requirements of the particular jurisdiction.  One characteristic which they must have beyond all others is apparently a lack of any connection with any of the parties.  A second characteristic often required is that they have little knowledge of the situation.

I got to thinking about these requirements and began to wonder about the pro’s and con’s of those requirements.  If one thinks about the state of the world when the concept of “a jury of one’s peers” was originally mandated it would seem that it must have had different connotations.  Rather then requiring that the jury had no intimate knowledge of the persons involved, it would seem that the original purpose was to ensure that those doing the judging were so familiar with the persons and circumstances being reviewed that their final verdicts would be based on facts both presented in the courtroom and known from personal knowledge.

Most of us know that the term “peer” originally had a more specific meaning and referred to those with a certain status and standing in Great Britain.  If a Lord of the realm was brought up on charges he had the right to be heard and judged by other of similar status and standing.  Similarly, in most tribal councils anywhere in the world it is the tribal council members who pass judgement on the actions of a fellow tribal member.  In neither of those cases is it expected that the members are not conversant with either the person being judged or of the most intimate circumstances affecting the case itself.

In our system of justice determining guilt and innocence is often separated from the sentencing phase.  The residual influences of the original philosophy can be seen in the ability of the judge in a case to determine the proper sentence, although it often must fall within a range of options.  There have been various attempts to restrict or even eliminate the range of options available to a judge.  Examples include laws requiring minimum sentences for those who use a firearm in committing a crime and the so-called “Three Strikes” laws.

There are some very good reasons for considering a return to a system which might better reflect the original intent of requiring that a suspect charged with a serious infraction be judged by a jury composed of individuals who are more conversant with all the facts of a particular case.  It would certainly seem to be a way of reducing  or even eliminating some of the more egregious responses which are reported from time to time in the news.  Children being sent home from school for having an aspirin in their possession might be better served by a system which is able to take mitigating circumstances and personal knowledge of the individual’s character into consideration.  It would certainly seem that the original intent of the system was to ensure that those under indictment were being judged by those who could bring more to the table than an ability to understand a dry recitation of the facts.

An interesting fact to note is that the depiction of Lady Justice with a blindfold “….did not become an accessory until well into the 17th century.”  Perhaps even more interesting is that a review of sources showed that there were those who wished to suggest otherwise.  In the “Lady Justice” section of Wikipedia they contradicted themselves by first claiming that Justica had been depicted as blindfolded since early Roman times, whereas in the next section it claims that “(t)he first known representation of blind Justice isHans Gieng’s 1543 statue on the Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen (Fountain of Justice) in Berne.”  One has to wonder if such revisionism is the result of error or the wish to suggest a historical precedent where there wasn’t one.

This is all not to suggest that a system of blind justice does not also have some benefits.  Obviously the benefits derived from taking personalities and circumstances into account can be turned into drawbacks when justice is thwarted by judgments which result in evildoers going unpunished due to their position or standing within the community.  The attributes which I have assigned to the original system are the very ones the blind justice system is designed to negate.  The problem is that blind justice can also result in egregious miscarriages of justice.  The irony is that many of the same people who advocate for blind justice also wish to mitigate its effects by reverting to the previous system whenever it suits them.  I would suggest that many of the problems they complain about now are the result of a system requiring that the justice system be separate from the community it serves.  The system can either be blind with the rules applying to everyone equally or it can be one which truly employs the use of “a jury of one’s peers”.

Thank you for considering my thoughts.

The article I referenced earlier addressing the same issue can be found here.


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