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2011 Essay Contest Winners

2011 Essay Question: The Seventh Amendment, which guarantees the right to trial by jury, has recently been under attack by politicians and special interest groups who do not want citizens to serve as jurors to determine the outcome of disputes. Please discuss why the jury system is or is not essential to a democratic society.

Anthony Ramicone – Springboro High School

The jury system has been a fundamental aspect of the American judicial system since its inception. As creators of a nation based on the concept of democracy, the Founding Fathers wanted to ensure that laws would be used to protect the people, not make them subjects of the government. For this very reason, the Seventh Amendment was added, guaranteeing the right to trial by jury. This amendment protects the people from tyranny within the judicial system. Thus, trial by jury is integral to a democratic society.

Most of the important players in the courtroom are attorneys and judges. These highly educated members of society represent the educational, and typically economic, elite. Without a jury system, decisions of law would be left completely up to these aforementioned players. While there is certainly something to be said for decisions made by educated citizens, these lawyers and judges embody a mere fraction of American society. To allow them to control the judicial system entirely would disenfranchise the vast majority of the public, creating a gap between average citizens and the elite. The jury system fills this gap. When everyday citizens take part in a jury setting to help determine legal matters, they inevitably comprise an eclectic body that effectively represents American society. This system removes some of the power from members of the judicial branch and places it in the hands of the people, which was an ideal held dear by America’s founding fathers.

On the other hand, some might say that American citizens are inept to handle legal decisions, pointing to the fact that lawyers and judges study for years before entering their profession. These critics might come to the conclusion that legal decisions are best left to legal professionals, and not the “average Joe.” However, this stance places too much faith in the institution of government and robs the people of their power as citizens. And while lawyers and judges are expected to hold a great deal of knowledge about a multitude of legal topics, jurors are only expected to understand one topic: the law regarding the case at hand. When viewed through this lens, jury duty does not create an intellectual burden on the juror, but rather allows the juror to protect individual freedoms.

When the Seventh Amendment was approved as a portion of the Bill of Rights, it was meant to protect the people. The right to trial by jury keeps American citizens connected and involved with their government. It also takes power, that would otherwise be held by an elite portion of society, and distributes it to society as a whole. In other words, the jury system ensures freedom from tyranny. To say that trial by jury is a flawless method would be inaccurate, but this system is the best option. The right to trial by jury is indeed essential to a democratic society.

Colton Conover – Lebanon High School

The United States of America was created to be a government “for, of, and by the people,” or a democratic society. Trial by jury, guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment, is an essential element to a democratic society. As part of the Bill of Rights, it is considered a quintessential right of the American citizen. This sentiment is echoed by famous Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson. Removing such an institution from the American judicial system would take more control out of the hands of the citizens, leaving it in the hands of government officials.

The point of the Bill of Rights was to create a list of basic rights that every American citizen deserves. In fact, the actual Constitution was refused by many states until a “bill of rights” would be added. Upon its addition, the Constitution was ratified. The Bill of Rights, and in particular the Seventh Amendment guaranteeing trial by jury, are cornerstones of fundamental American values and government.

Removal of the jury system places a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the government, removing all checks of power from the citizens on the judicial branch. Leaving the case, decision, and sentence up to a single or small group of judges can lead to influenced decisions and favorable treatment to some. Thomas Jefferson was a strong proponent of the trial by jury system, and realized the dangers of a government without such a system: “To consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions is a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy.” Jefferson states that removing the trial by jury system places all the power in the hands of the judges and other government officials, putting the citizens under a sort of oligarchic leadership. Such a form of leadership is completely opposite to the principles of democracy.

The idea that citizens are not qualified enough to serve as jurors is absurd. In the state of Ohio, every person with a high school diploma has taken a government class, and is at least knowledgeable about the jury process. Most people are informed enough to serve as well, and as a form of civic duty, it enables citizens to feel as though they are a part of the government.

Trial by jury is a fundamental cornerstone of our country’s operations. Without such a staple, America would not resemble the superpower it does today. This function of the judicial system encourages civilian participation in the government, which is the most important part of a democratic government. Without the principles of trial by jury, America would cease to be a democratic nation.

Kyle Mentser – Kings High School

In democracies, the citizens control the life, liberty, and property of the nation. The people elect local, state, and federal officials that will send youth off to war, create new laws, and decide how to tax the people. The officials must operate within the checks and balances of their offices. All of these actions, which the people initiate with their votes, affect either the nation as a whole, or a specific class of people. So when the government as prosecutor, or a fellow citizen as plaintiff, files suit to settle a matter of life, liberty, or property against individuals, the defendants need a jury of their peers — the people. A judge cannot have the full authority over the dispute. In a democracy, the people must always be in control of their life, liberty, and property, from Congress to court.

The people are full of prejudices and incompetence. Some would say, then, that it is detrimental to a democratic society to put a handful of random and flawed citizens in control of the fate of a dispute. A judge has graduated from law school; he or she has perhaps years of experience with litigation of all types. Why should not a judge be the sole arbitrator of a dispute? Consider a bed of nails. When a person lays their body flat over one nail, he or she will feel incredible pain. However, if that person lays their body flat over many nails, he or she will hardly feel any pain. A single judge’s prejudices can pierce with impunity any evidence brought forth at a trial. Our democracy requires the jury, which, when randomly drawn and properly voir dire, can render each juror’s flaws dull, because responsibility and authority are spread over the entire group.

Ordinary citizens holding the responsibility and authority over the outcome of a trial also serve to make argument more democratic. The legal representation of each side of a dispute must not only present their cases, but in such a way that perhaps a plumber or an accountant will understand as well as any law school graduate. Under a trial by jury, disputes that actually make it to trial are much more likely to be based on clear and solid evidence, rather than an arcane legal technicality.

For a country to be a true democracy, the people must control the life, liberty, and property of that country. A majority must elect the officials, and where those officials are not limited in their power by checks and balances; the people must serve instead. A jury is such a place. It is only with a jury of the defendant’s peers that a trial stands the best chance of being resolved free of prejudice. A jury reduces a case down to its core elements, so that it becomes clear whether or not life, liberty, or property should truly be taken away.

Tyler Duvelius – Lebanon High School

It would be easy for me to come up with a definitive answer to the question as to whether our Seventh Amendment right to have a jury in a civil trial is essential in today’s democracy. It would be easy to pander to what I believe the judges want to hear. The fact of the matter, however, is that there is no correct answer to whether a civil trial is essential in today’s society; that is what makes our American democracy so beautiful. First off, I believe it is pertinent to state that the Seventh Amendment has not been incorporated by the Supreme Court. Likewise, the Ohio Constitution gives an extremely vague description of how juries should be handled in civil cases. While I believe that each civil case should have a jury, I hold this belief with strong reservations. I support the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Slocum v. New York Insurance Company, which upheld common law that judges can nullify a jury’s verdict if it is contradictory to the evidence of the law. The power of judges to interpret laws was originally introduced in Marbury v. Madison, which gave the judicial branch the power that it possesses today. In short, the Seventh Amendment should be enforced to ensure that the judicial branch does not retain too much power; judges, however, should be granted the power to reverse the jury’s decision if they do not see the verdict germane to the law.

President Lincoln once famously proclaimed that we have a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Our Founding Fathers recognized the need for citizen involvement by the people to make the American democratic system work for the people. From the judge, to the jury, to the lawyers, to the bailiff, the judicial system is made of the people of the United States of America. During his years as president, Lincoln saw a nation divided. President Lincoln realized that without the citizens keeping a check on the government, and the government keeping a check on its citizens, that the American system of democracy would become seriously flawed (See: Civil War). While the judicial system must have control over the people, the people must also check the judicial system to ensure that there is no misconduct afloat. Our present system maintains this healthy balance between the judicial branch and the people. As we are granted a trial of our peers and even by our peers, we are assured that neither the judge nor the jury can withhold a proper judgment against us. That is the beautiful thing about our American democracy; while we may have messed up, we are still guaranteed a fair trial, we are assured a just decision. There is an easy answer to whether a trial by jury is essential to our modern democracy; look at our present judicial system. Quaere omnia, ibi veritas iacit: Question all things, the truth lies therein.

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