The right to a trial by jury, one of the most time-honored inheritances from Magna Carta in United States law, refers to the guarantee that courts will depend on a body of citizens to render judgments in most civil and criminal cases. The origins of the jury trial precede the creation of Magna Carta. However, Chapter 39 of King John’s Magna Carta includes the guarantee that no free man may suffer punishment without “the lawful judgment of his peers.” By this measure the barons sought to force the king to delegate part of his judicial authority to men who were peers of the individual on trial. While Magna Carta did not institute the jury system in the modern sense, its political intent—to prevent the king’s domination of the courts—inspired later generations to view the right to a trial by jury as one of the basic safeguards of freedom from arbitrary government.
Eighteenth-century Americans viewed the right to a jury trial as one of the essential liberties of a free country. They saw the jury as an independent deliberative body that could refuse to cooperate with an unjust court or law. Although the United States Constitution recognized a right to a jury trial in criminal cases, the states demanded a constitutional amendment to guarantee a jury trial in civil cases as well, leading to the creation of the Seventh Amendment.
A Late Medieval Jury
Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, there was considerable overlap between the laws and customs of medieval Normandy and England. Medieval collections of the customary laws of Normandy are therefore especially valuable for understanding the history of English law. One custom that was widely practiced on both sides of the English Channel was the use of a grand jury, as illustrated in this fifteenth-century manuscript.
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Tried for Treason
John Lilburne was a Leveller, a member of a group of mid-seventeenth-century English politicians who sought religious toleration and an end to parliamentary corruption. Lilburne, who argued that English subjects inherited a body of individual liberties that were enshrined in Magna Carta, was frequently imprisoned for his views. During his trial for treason in 1649, Lilburne lectured the court about a jury’s role in preventing unjust judgments, reading aloud key passages from Sir Edward Coke’s interpretation of Magna Carta. In this engraved frontispiece, Lilburne brandishes a copy of Coke’s Institutes.
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Case of William Penn and William Mead
On trial in 1667 for preaching his Quaker faith in public, William Penn convinced the jury that as Englishmen, they could refuse to convict. When the jury declined to find Penn and fellow Quaker William Mead guilty in spite of conclusive evidence for a conviction, Lord Chief Justice John Kelynge (1607–1671) imprisoned and denied members of the jury daily necessities until they rendered a guilty verdict. In response to a petition for a writ of habeas corpus by Edward Bushel, one of the jurors, Lord Chief Justice Vaughan (1603–1674) of the Court of Common Pleas held that a judge may not imprison a jury for refusing to deliver the desired verdict.
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Crown v. John Peter Zenger
John Peter Zenger (1697–1746), a printer in colonial New York, was accused of seditious libel for printing newspaper articles critical of Colonial Governor William Cosby. During the trial, Zenger’s lawyer acknowledged that his client had printed the articles but asked the jury for a verdict of not guilty, arguing that this case “may in its consequence affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America.” Against the judge’s instructions to decide only the question of facts, the jury found Zenger not guilty.
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Draft of Duncan v. Louisiana
Duncan v. Louisiana was a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that arose from the conviction of a Louisiana teen for simple battery, a misdemeanor that under Louisiana law did not require a jury trial. The Supreme Court decided the conviction was void because it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury for criminal cases in state courts. Referencing Magna Carta, the majority stated: “Trial by jury in criminal cases is fundamental to the American scheme of justice.”
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