Juries and Judges in the Public's Mind: Race, Ethnicity, and JURY EXPERIENCE

Article excerpt

The jury is often the object of criticism,1 but a majority of Americans say that they prefer juries over judges as decision makers, at least in criminal cases. In one study, a sizable majority of Illinois residents said they would select a jury over a judge if they imagined they were on trial for murder, if they were accused of otiier serious crimes, or even if they were a crime victim.- Similarly, a recent national telephone survey found that respondents trusted a jury over a judge to give a fair verdict by a margin of 2 to 1.a According to this line of research, even if people do not regard the jury as perfect (only half the Illinois study thought die jury was the "niost thorough"), when people imagine their own interests on the line, most would put their faidi in a jury rather than a judge to make decisions.

This attachment to die idea of a jury as a decision maker need not be consistent across all groups of people. Aldiough dramatically more representative than at any time in die past, modern juries continue to underrepresem some racial and etiinic minority groups.' Research also suggests that the initial majority view of a case has a strong influence on the jury's final verdict/ Thus, those in the statistical minority in a community may believe that people on a jury are unlikely to share or sympathize with any potentially unique life circumstances, assumptions, or backgrounds. Further, history offers sobering examples of non-representative - typically all-White - juries handing down verdicts that have sparked controversy and accusations of racism." Finally, support for a jury also presupposes that people are familiar with and endorse the notion that a Jay perspective adds value to legal decision making. If people are socially distant from the broader community or have not been socialized to embrace the value of a lay, common sense perspective, they may not share the belief that using juries is the "right" way to decide legal cases. For all these reasons, we recently examined whether or not racial and ethnic minority groups (African Americans and Hispanics) showed different levels of support for the jury than did Whites.7

Existing studies of public opinion have not considered whether opinions about juries or judges vary according to a respondent's race or ethnicity. This gap exists even though research into attitudes toward other legal and governmental institutions has revealed that African Americans, for example, exhibit less trust in legal policies, in judges, in die police, and in politicians than do Whites.

Research on public opinion among Hispanics has produced a less straightforward picture. Some work finds few differences between Hispanics and Whites in their atütudes toward government and in their general opinion of the courts." Still other research suggests that the crucial issue is the level of acculturation among Hispanics, although even this issue is complex. Some studies, for example, find that new immigrants are actually less cynical and politically alienated than are later-generation Hispanics,1" whereas other work indicates that Hispanics follow patterns that are similar to those for other immigrant groups (i.e., with assimilation, each successive generation more closely resembles the views of the dominant group)."

Our work shows that support for die jury does vary along racial/ethnic lines, and that it is also affected strongly by acculturation in the U.S. We also find support for the idea that familiarity with the jury, gained by actually serving on a jury, predicts more positive assessments, especially among minority group members. With these findings, we offer a more nuanced and detailed picture of the state of the modern jury in public perception.

Surveying Texas adults

To examine whether minorities do, in fact, view juries (and judges) differently from Whites, we asked a representative sample of 1,465 Texas adults whether they would prefer a jury or ajudge to make decisions in response to four different scenarios. …