Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!


An Essay on the Trial by Jury: Juries vs. Representative Democracy

When it comes to checking tyranny, the jury box beats the ballot box.

Spooner argues that the jury, composed of and beholden to the people, serves as constant check on government power, rendering the jury a more reliable guardian of liberty than periodically elected representatives or their dependents in the executive and judicial branches.

This selection has been excerpted from Lysander Spooner’s 1852 monograph “An Essay on the Trial by Jury.” The full text is available on Project Gutenberg.

Neither is it of any avail to say, that, if the government abuse its power, and enact unjust and oppressive laws, the government may be changed by the influence of discussion, and the exercise of the right of suffrage. Discussion can do nothing to prevent the enactment, or procure the repeal, of unjust laws, unless it be understood that the discussion is to be followed by resistance. Tyrants care nothing for discussions that are to end only in discussion. Discussions, which do not interfere with the enforcement of their laws, are but idle wind to them. Suffrage is equally powerless and unreliable. It can be exercised only periodically; and the tyranny must at least be borne until the time for suffrage comes. Besides, when the suffrage is exercised, it gives no guaranty for the repeal of existing laws that are oppressive, and no security against the enactment of new ones that are equally so. The second body of legislators are liable and likely to be just as tyrannical as the first. If it be said that the second body may be chosen for their integrity, the answer is, that the first were chosen for that very reason, and yet proved tyrants. The second will be exposed to the same temptations as the first, and will be just as likely to prove tyrannical. Who ever heard that succeeding legislatures were, on the whole, more honest than those that preceded them? What is there in the nature of men or things to make them so? If it be said that the first body were chosen from motives of injustice, that fact proves that there is a portion of society who desire to establish injustice; and if they were powerful or artful enough to procure the election of their instruments to compose the first legislature, they will be likely to be powerful or artful enough to procure the election of the same or similar instruments to compose the second. The right of suffrage, therefore, and even a change of legislators, guarantees no change of legislation—certainly no change for the better. Even if a change for the better actually comes, it comes too late, because it comes only after more or less injustice has been irreparably done.

But, at best, the right of suffrage can be exercised only periodically; and between the periods the legislators are wholly irresponsible. No despot was ever more entirely irresponsible than are republican legislators during the period for which they are chosen. They can neither be removed from their office, nor called to account while in their office, nor punished after they leave their office, be their tyranny what it may. Moreover, the judicial and executive departments of the government are equally irresponsible to the people, and are only responsible, (by impeachment, and dependence for their salaries), to these irresponsible legislators. This dependence of the judiciary and executive upon the legislature is a guaranty that they will always sanction and execute its laws, whether just or unjust. Thus the legislators hold the whole power of the government in their hands, and are at the same time utterly irresponsible for the manner in which they use it.

If, now, this government, (the three branches thus really united in one), can determine the validity of, and enforce, its own laws, it is, for the time being, entirely absolute, and wholly irresponsible to the people.

But this is not all. These legislators, and this government, so irresponsible while in power, can perpetuate their power at pleasure, if they can determine what legislation is authoritative upon the people, and can enforce obedience to it; for they can not only declare their power perpetual, but they can enforce submission to all legislation that is necessary to secure its perpetuity. They can, for example, prohibit all discussion of the rightfulness of their authority; forbid the use of the suffrage; prevent the election of any successors; disarm, plunder, imprison, and even kill all who refuse submission. If, therefore, the government (all departments united) be absolute for a day—that is, if it can, for a day, enforce obedience to its own laws—it can, in that day, secure its power for all time—like the queen, who wished to reign but for a day, but in that day caused the king, her husband, to be slain, and usurped his throne.

Nor will it avail to say that such acts would be unconstitutional, and that unconstitutional acts may be lawfully resisted; for everything a government pleases to do will, of course, be determined to be constitutional, if the government itself be permitted to determine the question of the constitutionality of its own acts. Those who are capable of tyranny, are capable of perjury to sustain it.

The conclusion, therefore, is, that any government, that can, for a day, enforce its own laws, without appealing to the people, (or to a tribunal fairly representing the people,) for their consent, is, in theory, an absolute government, irresponsible to the people, and can perpetuate its power at pleasure.

The trial by jury is based upon a recognition of this principle, and therefore forbids the government to execute any of its laws, by punishing violators, in any case whatever, without first getting the consent of “the country,” or the people, through a jury. In this way, the people, at all times, hold their liberties in their own hands, and never surrender them, even for a moment, into the hands of the government.

The trial by jury, then, gives to any and every individual the liberty, at any time, to disregard or resist any law whatever of the government, if he be willing to submit to the decision of a jury, the questions, whether the law be intrinsically just and obligatory? and whether his conduct, in disregarding or resisting it, were right in itself? And any law, which does not, in such trial, obtain the unanimous sanction of twelve men, taken at random from the people, and judging according to the standard of justice in their own minds, free from all dictation and authority of the government, may be transgressed and resisted with impunity, by whomsoever pleases to transgress or resist it.*

The trial by jury authorizes all this, or it is a sham and a hoax, utterly worthless for protecting the people against oppression. If it do not authorize an individual to resist the first and least act of injustice or tyranny, on the part of the government, it does not authorize him to resist the last and the greatest. If it do not authorize individuals to nip tyranny in the bud, it does not authorize them to cut it down when its branches are filled with the ripe fruits of plunder and oppression.

* And if there be so much as a reasonable doubt of the justice of the laws, the benefit of that doubt must be given to the defendant, and not to the government. So that the government must keep its laws clearly within the limits of justice, if it would ask a jury to enforce them.