Recent debates about declining social capital, low voter turnout, and other signs of civic malaise have directed little attention to those enduring political and legal institutions that sustain at least modest levels of citizen involvement in the public sphere. The American jury system is a key part of the institutional foundation supporting public participation in the United States, yet its contribution remains largely unrecognized. It is imperative that we improve our understanding of its role in promoting civic engagement, because it is currently undergoing changes that may reduce its strength considerably.
Nearly two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville (1835) contended that jury deliberation served a larger civic function in America. The jury, he wrote, “is highly beneficial to those who decide the litigation” and “one of the most efficacious means for the education of the people which society can employ” (p. 337). The U.S. Supreme Court, in Powers v. Ohio (1991), invoked Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to argue that citizens not only have the right to trial by jury but also the right to serve on juries, owing to the jury’s value as a means of civic education. The American jury was designed to promote not only fair verdicts but also a sense of civic duty, and the experience of jury deliberation may boost citizens’ sense of civic responsibility and levels of public activity.
Such civic benefits can not be taken for granted because the jury system is perpetually under attack. Many other countries have scaled back or eliminated juries over the past century (Vidmar 2001), and in the United States, recent legal reforms already have reduced the size and frequency of jury trials (Dees 2001; Hans 2002; Hans and Vidmar 1986). The plea-bargaining process has further reduced the deployment of criminal juries, and many critics suggest drastically reducing the use of civil juries or dispensing with them altogether (Adler 1994). Even without the most radical reforms, there is already a trend toward decreased reliance on jury trials. In federal courts, the percent of criminal charges that end in verdicts has dropped from 10.4% in 1988 to 4.3%, and the percent of civil cases resolved by juries has declined from 5.4% in 1962 to 1.5% (Glaberson 2001).
In evaluating the value of jury trials, however, policymakers and researchers have often overlooked the jury’s role as a powerful means of civic education and inspiration. Many scholars (e.g., Putnam 2000) share a widespread public concern about stagnant voter turnout, low levels of social capital, and limited civic voluntarism in American society. From this perspective, the jury could prove a bulwark against further civic erosion. Others who question the extent of America’s civic decline (e.g., Bennett 1998) could still recognize that the jury, like other public institutions (Skocpol and Fiorina 1999), plays a valuable role in sustaining a healthy civic culture.
Until recently, there was no direct empirical evidence regarding the link between jury service and public engagement, but a study recently published by this proposal’s primary investigators produced such data. Our 2002 study found that after controlling for other trial features and past voting frequency, Washington citizens who served on a criminal jury that reached a verdict were more likely to vote in subsequent elections than were those jurors who deadlocked, were dismissed during trial, or served as alternates. Our current research confirms that general finding and shows in more detail how jury service influences the civic attitudes and behaviors of average citizens.
Bennett, W. Lance. 1998. “The UnCivic Culture: Communication, Identity, and the Rise of Lifestyle Politics.” PS: Political Science and Politics 31:741-61.
Dees, Tom M. 2001. “Juries: On the Verge of Extinction? A Discussion of Jury Reform.” Southern Methodist University Law Review 54:1755-1812.
Hans, Valerie P. 2002. “U.S. Jury Reform: The Active Jury and the Adversarial Jury.” St. Louis University Public Law Review 21:85-97.
Hans, Valerie P., and Neil Vidmar. 1986. Judging the Jury. New York: Plenum Press.
Powers v. Ohio, 499 U.S. 400, 407 (1991).
Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Skocpol, Theda, and Morris P. Fiorina. 1999. Civic Engagement in American Democracy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Tocqueville, Alexis de.  1961. Democracy in America. New York: Schocken.
Vidmar, Neil, ed. 2001. World Jury Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.