Saturday, January 18, 2014

Juries as Schools for Liberty?

Tocqueville Question of the Day--Juries as Schools for Free Citizens

Juries: "one of the most effective means that a society can use for the education of the people" (448).

How many of you have tried to get out of jury duty? You might rethink that after reading Tocqueville, pages 442-450. Indeed, you might just go volunteer!

If asked about the importance of juries, I think most of us would focus on the rights of the accused and maybe as a protection for us all against arbitrary government decisions. Tocqueville, on the other hand, makes some quite extraordinary assertions that place the institution of the jury near the very core of what makes American democracy work.

He argues that it helps us put on the "mind of the judge" which is the kind of habit that best prepares us to be free. We learn respect for "the idea of right" and learn "the practice of equity." He argues that it teaches us not to retreat from responsibility for our own actions, which he calls a "manly disposition" essential to political virtue. It teaches us our duties to society and combats the "individual egoism" that he calls "the rust of societies."  

In Tocqueville's understanding, this seemingly minor judicial institution becomes "a free school" for the instruction of citizens and free peoples. "I think that the practical intelligence and good political sense of the Americans must be attributed principally to the long use that they have made of the jury in civil matters," Tocqueville argues.  And he concludes, "Thus the jury, which is the most energetic means to make the people rule, is also the most effective means to teach them to rule."

If Tocqueville is right, our challenge, it seems to me, is to find ways to make MORE use of the jury system. If jury trials are a key way of educating our citizens, then we need more opportunities for more citizens to serve and hence to be educated in the dispositions necessary for liberty. 
Teachers: I wonder if you might be moved to try to work jury trials into your curriculum? Has anyone tried that? What do you think of such an exercise? Is there anyone out there with a curriculum using juries? Maybe it is something some center dedicated to civic education might develop if there is a need.

I have long hoped to be called for jury duty. I hope for it even more now that I see how much Tocqueville values the institution. I am eager to participate and test his ideas.  Also interested in hearing from any of you who have served on juries or who have thoughts about Tocqueville's understanding of them.

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