Blog Author: Kelly Clark
Date: February 1, 2009 in Brainstorm NW
“I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” -Thomas Jefferson
Big Government. Not since Ronald Reagan was President or Vic Atiyeh was Governor have Oregonians seen a concerted effort to stop the growth of government—and both of those honorable men failed in that task. And in the November elections– whatever else they did—the voters gave the Democrats the reins of government, unchecked even by a Republican chamber in national or state legislative halls. Now, it is no part of my purpose to discuss the political map.
But one undoubted consequence of the elections is that Big Government will get bigger. That is the way that Democrats (and, apparently, judging from recent years, Republicans, too) tackle big problems. So, in an age of Big Government how do we protect our liberties? There are really only three tools our constitutional structure has for this challenge: representative government—where the people can remonstrate against excesses of public power through their elected representatives; a free press—which, theoretically at least, can shine the light of day on abuse of power by government; and the jury system—through which those on the wrong end of the Big Government stick can seek to hold public agencies accountable. It is this last, a potent jury system, that I believe needs to be defended, now more than ever.
Even before I became a trial lawyer, as a conservative I believed in the jury system. Then, over the past decades, as a conservative and a trial lawyer, I have seen time and again how large institutions are afraid to have their oppressive conduct proven to a jury. It does not really matter whether the institutions are private—banks, mega-corporations, insurance companies, or public—land use agencies, regulators, electoral bureaucracies. All these institutions can and regularly do run over our liberties. Ask anyone who has been on the receiving end of Oregon’s land use system, or whose business has been shut down by an overzealous bureaucrat, or whose idea for a ballot measure has been drubbed into the ground because some elections official misused his or her power. All these citizens will tell you that, sometimes, their only hope for accountability and justice is to plow through the legal system to get the matter before a jury.
So I am always baffled when I hear conservatives talk as if the jury system was the invention of some liberal interest group, and needs to be weakened. Why would we weaken it? Because sometimes juries get it wrong? Well, so what? Is that any reason to take power away from one of the last remaining checks against public power? If voters “get it wrong” in some election, the solution is not to take power away from the voters– though some liberals and elections officials seem to think so. No, the voters retain for themselves the right to be wrong: it is one of the risks of constitutional government. Or, if some political movement is patently offensive, even dangerous, to our ideals of life, do we pass a law that restricts its members’ ability to speak out? Of course not—at least we didn’t used to, before political incorrectness became a crime—for we believe in free speech, and we believe that in the marketplace of ideas, the true and wise ideas will eventually win out.So why is it any different when it comes to the jury system? I certainly do not argue that juries always get it right; our system cannot guarantee justice—but it does guarantee a chance at justice. And it is the knowledge of that “chance” that acts as a restraint on Big Government.
Some conservatives seem to trust the wisdom of the common man when it comes to self-government: free speech, free elections and the initiative system, but not when it comes to the jury system. On the other hand, many liberals seem to believe the average citizen perfectly capable of deciding even the most important legal case, but then they turn around and don’t trust that same citizen to wield the full power of the initiative, or even the vote—apparently believing that the people really are not smart enough, fair enough or wise enough to govern themselves. They-these conservatives and liberals-are elitists, all.
We must ask ourselves whether we really believe in the ability of free citizens to govern themselves. If we do, then we need to keep our jury system strong. Make no mistake—Big Brother would love to see it weakened. Then, not only will He continue to run roughshod over reluctant or captive legislative bodies, and not only can He keep seducing or manipulating our free press, but He will run over us, and the liberties of our families and our businesses as well. Indeed, He can do so with impunity, for He knows He will never have to answer to a jury of free citizens.