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The American jury and you - a privilege and responsibility

by Lt. Col. Diane Behler
6th Air Mobility Wing, Judge Advocate
 

The topic of MacDill's 2005 American Bar Association Law Day, scheduled for May 5, is The American Jury: We the People in Action.

Why celebrate and honor the American jury? The importance of the trial by jury was succinctly addressed by Supreme Court Justice Byron White, in Duncan v. Louisiana 1967: The question has been asked whether [trial by jury] is among those fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions...We believe that trial by jury is fundamental to the American scheme of justice... The jury trial provisions in the Federal and State Constitutions reflect a fundamental decision about the exercise of official power - a reluctance to entrust plenary powers over the life and liberty of the citizen to one judge or to a group of judges.

The right to a jury trial is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The 6th Amendment holds that in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.

Our jury system, is designed to protect rights of persons accused of crimes. The theory is that a panel of one's fellow citizens - one's peers - are best qualified to judge guilt or innocence. Second, the jury system is essential to democracy in that it imposes a serious responsibility upon individuals who, as in perhaps no other setting, can learn how democracy works. The third aspect to the jury trial is the assurance to the community at large that the legal system is functioning properly.

Throughout history, various segments of our society have fought to be included in the jury process.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited racial discrimination in the jury selection process. However the practice of excluding minorities persisted. A quick Internet search will reveal that exclusions of minorities on juries is still very much an issue. In 1975, the United States Supreme Court, in Taylor v. Louisiana, reversed its earlier (1961) position and held that the exclusion of women from juries is not permissible because jury pools without them violate a criminal defendant's right to be tried before a true cross-section of the community.

Court rulings on jury selection, to include decisions by the United States Supreme Court, have taken a firm stand against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender or economic status. A fair and impartial jury is an essential component of the American judicial system. The opportunity to serve as a juror is a valuable American privilege.

The guarantee of a jury trail is as important today, as it was two centuries ago when it was included in the Bill of Rights. Our American jury system is integral to values we as Americans have come to cherish.

We have our Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines fighting for democracies around the globe. The American judicial system is the envy of the world.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, an accused facing a court-martial has the right to have his/her case heard before a military judge or a panel of military members. Court members serve the essentially the same function as civilian juries.

Under Article 25, UCMJ, the convening authority details court members who are senior to the accused and, in the convening authority's opinion, are the best qualified for the duty by reason of age, education, training, experience, length of service and judicial temperament.

There are numerous safeguards in place to ensure the court-martial panel is fair and impartial. Court member duty is integral to the fair administration of military justice.

We as military members have the opportunity to serve on both military court-martial panels and civilian juries. So the next time you receive a jury summons in the mail, or notice of being detailed as a court member, before you look for ways to get yourself excused, take a moment and reflect on the role that each juror/court-member plays in our system of justice.

In addition to being a privilege, jury duty is a civic responsibility shared by each and every American. Our American Jury is truly worthy of honor and celebration.

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