by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, Associate Professor of Law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia and author of Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action
In our criminal justice system, we ask jurors to make incredibly difficult decisions about life and death, guilt and innocence, all without much training, preparation or support. One day you are a mother, father, employee, ordinary citizen; the next, you are deciding whether someone should be executed by order of the State.
This is the American system. Citizens become jurors and are suddenly entrusted with the most important decisions a society is required to make. Jurors are elevated to a constitutional role and given more power than ever before, all in the name of keeping the democratic legitimacy of citizen representation in our criminal justice system.
Just not in Alabama when it comes to the death penalty.
For the ninety-fifth time, a duly constituted local Alabama jury spared the life of a defendant facing the death penalty. In Woodward v. Alabama, the jurors voted 8-4 to sentence Mario Dion Woodward to life in prison without the possibility of parole. A single judge overrode the decision and sentenced Mr. Woodward to death.
In her dissent from a denial of certiorari, Justice Sonya Sotomayor raised significant Sixth and Eighth Amendment concerns about the practice of allowing judges (facing the political pressure of reelection) to impose the death penalty because those judges disagree with the jury’s assessments of the facts. Such reasoning runs directly against the logic of Ring v. Arizona and may violate the constitutional rights of the accused.
However the Supreme Court ultimately decides the constitutional issue, I see a broader problem focusing not on the accused but on the citizen. Simply stated, a judicial override process devalues civic participation and threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the jury system. By disrespecting the jury verdict, the judge is disrespecting the juror’s role in the criminal justice system.
“Respect” is a complicated concept that recognizes an individual’s status, inclusion in a group and appropriate treatment. Jurors, by law and tradition, have been accorded an elevated status in the system. During their service, jurors are deputized to act on behalf of the state. By virtue of citizenship, they are included as co-equal participating members of the legal system. To respect jurors means to honor this civic status and participation. So, what message does it send to jurors in Alabama when their deliberative decisions are rejected by a judge? What does it say about citizen-led justice when the jury’s voice is ignored?
Participation lies at the heart of our constitutional system, not simply because we need people to vote and show up for jury duty, but because civic participation legitimizes the system. As Justice Scalia wrote in Blakely v. Washington, “Under our Constitution, the right to a jury trial is no mere procedural formality, but a fundamental reservation of power in our constitutional structure. Just as suffrage ensures the people’s ultimate control in the legislative and executive branches, jury trial is meant to ensure their control in the judiciary.” Judicial override systems usurp the people’s control by rejecting their input in the process. It is not simply disempowerment, but disrespect.
One of the forgotten benefits of the jury system is that it reifies many of our fundamental constitutional values. Participation, deliberation, fairness, accountability, equality, liberty and the common good are all built within the jury experience. Jurors participate as equals. Jurors follow rules of fairness to hold fellow citizens accountable. Jurors deliberate on the liberty of others, together, for the common good. Those values, however, presuppose that this process of constitutional decision-making is respected by the legal system in which it exists. A jury system that fails to honor these principles undermines its own constitutional foundation.
In an era when jury yields are declining across the country, and some courthouses have had to postpone trials because not enough jurors showed up for jury duty, imagine the statement sent when jury verdicts are summarily rejected by courts. Why would citizens show up the next time, if their hard work, emotional investment, and civic service will be disrespected by a judge? I can only imagine the sentiment of those Alabama jurors when they learned their decision had been overturned. It betrays all of those values of participation, fairness, accountability, etc. without any equivalent systemic benefit.
In my view, jury service is the closest an ordinary citizen can come to living the principles of the Constitution. Jury duty exists as a constitutional teaching moment, and one of the lessons should be “mutual respect.” Jurors should leave the local courthouse with a new respect that the legal system works. Judges should respect that jurors will participate in good faith and with full engagement because jurors make the system work. This mutual respect is the foundation of self-government, and a judicial override system weakens that constitutional principle.
Fortunately, the solution to this problem does not require a Supreme Court decision. Nor does any court have to resolve the difficult constitutional issues. All Alabama courts and citizens need to do is respect the verdicts of their local juries.