Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Jury Ignorance and Political Ignorance

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Jury Ignorance and Political Ignorance

Article excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS  INTRODUCTION I.   VOTER KNOWLEDGE VS. JUROR KNOWLEDGE      A. The Problem of Rational Political Ignorance      B. Rational Irrationality      C. Implications for Juries II.  THE EVIDENCE ON JURY IGNORANCE AND BIAS      A. Favorable Evidence on Jury Knowledge and         Objectivity      B. Negative Evidence on Jury Knowledge and         Objectivity      C. Implications III. IMPLICATIONS FOR THE USE OF JURIES BEYOND      THE COURTROOM CONCLUSION 


For centuries, juries have been hailed as a model of popular participation in government. In the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville famously praised the American jury as "both the most effective way of establishing the people's rule and the most efficient way of teaching them how to rule." (1) Modern defenders of the jury have also often emphasized its role as a tool for democratic participation in the justice system. (2)

But even as he praised the jury's role as a political institution, de Tocqueville worried that jurors might lack the knowledge needed to perform their judicial function properly:

   The jury system arose in the infancy of society, at a time when    only simple questions of fact were submitted to the courts; and it    is no easy task to adapt it to the needs of a highly civilized    nation, where the relations between men have multiplied exceedingly    and have been thoughtfully elaborated in a learned manner. (3) 

Another nineteenth-century writer, Mark Twain, expressed the same concern in much blunter terms:

   The jury system puts a ban upon intelligence and honesty, and a    premium upon ignorance, stupidity and perjury.... I desire to    tamper with the jury law. I wish to so alter it as to put a premium    on intelligence and character, and close the jury box against    idiots, blacklegs, and people who do not read newspapers. (4) 

Today's society is arguably even more "highly civilized" than that described by de Tocqueville in the 1830s, or at least more complex. And today's trials often require jurors to evaluate evidence and testimony far more complicated than that of de Tocqueville's time or Twain's. (5) These changes make it all the more vital that jurors "possess intelligence and honesty," while avoiding "ignorance and stupidity," as Twain put it. (6) It is therefore essential to ask whether jurors have the knowledge and cognitive abilities needed to cope with the challenges of modern trials.

A great deal of evidence suggests that voters often fail to acquire the knowledge needed to cope with the enormous size, scope, and complexity of modern government. (7) The majority of the public is often ignorant of very basic political information, and voters also often do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know. (8) Given the oft-made analogy between jury service and political participation, it is important to ask whether jurors are prone to similar pitfalls. Do they also often make poor decisions out of ignorance or illogical evaluation of evidence?

This Article considers that question. My tentative conclusion is that jurors are likely superior to voters in terms of both acquiring knowledge and utilizing it in a rational way. But ignorance and irrationality do sometimes compromise jury decision making, especially in complex cases. They are even more likely to bedevil efforts to use jury-like institutions to make broad public policy decisions, as opposed to merely decide discrete cases.

Part I summarizes the problem of political ignorance in the case of voters, and explains some theoretical reasons why we would expect jurors to acquire greater relevant knowledge than voters do and to use it more wisely. Jurors have stronger incentives to both acquire political information and analyze it in a rational way. Unlike voters, who have only an infinitesimal chance of influencing electoral outcomes, jurors presumably realize that their individual votes are likely to make a decisive difference to the outcome of a trial. …

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