Often, the system seems so big that it’s overwhelming and anyone championing change will face an uphill battle. Politicians seem not to care what’s best for the country; it’s hard being powerless over a huge force like the government.
However, I know of one way in which an individual can have power over the government by being a part of the system rather than working against it — it’s called jury duty. It’s ironic, though, because when people get a jury summons they generally tend to hate them. Unless you have a valid excuse, you have to show up, and most likely do a lot of waiting. If you get put on a jury, it’s even more time that you have to spend at the courthouse, possibly getting paid nothing.
Despite all the obvious downsides to jury duty, there is a huge upside — ordinary citizens get to decide who has or has not broken the law. People don’t always get jury trials, but generally for major crimes you have the right to a trial by jury, in which a group of peers gets to judge your guilt, rather than the government. I’m not sure if people realize it, but as a juror, you have tremendous power.
People must be well aware though that the power of a juror is not only over the defendant, but over the government.
Judges have been known to inform juries to only judge the defendant’s guilt based upon the testimony and evidence presented in trial and not to judge the actual law itself. But there has long been a patriotic check on the government when juries deem the law itself to be unjust. This concept is known as jury nullification.
John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court said, “The jury has the right to judge both the law as well as the fact in controversy.” Indeed juries do hold this de facto power, but not everybody agrees with it. Some judges prohibit defense attorneys from educating jurors of their capability to nullify laws. Also in some cases, jurors may be removed from the jury if the judge becomes aware of their intent to find the defendant not guilty based on their view that the law is unjust. Despite this, many (including myself) view jury nullification as a very powerful and legitimate check on the government that helps keeps the government from unjustly expanding its powers.
I recommend people keep the concept of jury nullification in mind next time they’re on a jury. I don’t recommend ever using those words near a courtroom, though. I’ve seen too many videos of people simply passing out literature near or in a courthouse on the subject of jury nullification, only to find the courthouse security and police hassling them. The police never seem to find anything to charge them with, but their presence is bothersome.
Consider this: Between 1921 and 1923 during prohibition in New York, approximately 7,000 people were arrested on alcohol-related charges. Of those roughly seven thousand arrests, a mere 27 resulted in convictions. I’m guessing jury nullification just might have had something to do with that statistic and ultimately with the enactment of the 21st amendment repealing the prohibition of alcohol.