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Historical Jury Nullification


The jury has an "unreviewable and irreversible power... to acquit in disregard of the instructions on the law given by the trial judge... The pages of history shine on instances of the jury's exercise of its prerogative to disregard uncontradicted evidence and instructions of the judge; for example, acquittals under the fugitive slave law. U.S. v. Dougherty, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1972, 473 F.2d at 1130 and 1132. (Nevertheless, the majority opinion held that jurors need not be told this. Dissenting Chief Judge Bazelon thought that they ought to be so told.)

"If the jury feels the law is unjust, we recognize the undisputed power of the jury to acquit, even if its verdict is contrary to the law as given by a judge, and contrary to the evidence... If the jury feels that the law under which the defendant is accused is unjust, or that exigent circumstances justified the actions of the accused, or for any reason which appeals to their logic or passion, the jury has the power to acquit, and the courts must abide by that decision." United States v. Moylan, 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, 1969, 417 F.2d at 1006.

Theophilus Parsons, "... a leading supporter of the Constitution of the United States in the convention of 1788 by which Massachusetts ratified the Constitution, (who was appointed by President Adams in 1801 to the post of Attorney General of the United States, but declined that office and became Chief Justice of Massachusetts in 1806) said:

"The people themselves have it in their power effectually to resist usurpation, [the wrongful seizure of authority] without being driven to an appeal to arms. An act of usurpation is not obligatory; it is not law; and any man may be justified in his resistance. Let him be considered as a criminal by the general government, yet only his fellow citizens can convict him; they are his jury, and if they pronounce him innocent, not all the powers of Congress can hurt him; and innocent they certainly will pronounce him, if the supposed law he resisted was an act of usurpation." Elliot's Debates, 94; 2 Bancroft's History of the Constitution, p.267. Quoted in Sparf and Hansen v. U.S., 156 U.S. 51 (1895), Dissenting Opinion: Gray, Shiras, JJ., 144.

Mr. Chief Justice. No, Mr. Hamilton, the jury may find that Mr. Zenger printed and published those papers, and leave it to the Court to judge whether they are libellous. You know this is very common: it is in the nature of a Special Verdict, where the jury leave the matter of law to the Court. Mr. Hamilton: I know, may it please your honour, the jury may do so; but I do likewise know they may do otherwise. I know they have the right, beyond all dispute, to determine both the law and the fact; and where they do not doubt of the law, they ought to do so. This of leaving it to the judgment of the Court, whether the words are libellous or not, in effect renders juries useless (to say no worse) in many cases...
Gentlemen, the danger is great, in proportion to the mischief that may happen through our too great credulity. A proper confidence in a court is commendable; but as the verdict (whatever it is) will be yours, you ought to refer no part of your duty to the direction of other persons. If you should be of opinion, that there is no falsehood in Mr. Zenger's papers, you will, nay, (pardon me for the expression) you ought to say so; because you don't know whether others (I mean the Court) may be of that opinion. It is your right to do so, and there is much depending upon your resolution, as well as upon your integrity." Andrew Hamilton's defense of John Peter Zenger, from How. St. Tr. 17:698 (1735) at 703-720.

"...[T]he institution of trial by jury --especially in criminal cases-- has its hold upon public favor chiefly for two reasons. The individual can forfeit his liberty --to say nothing of his life-- only at the hands of those who, unlike any official, are in no wise accountable, directly or indirectly, for what they do, and who at once separate and melt anonymously in the community from which they came. Moreover, since if they acquit their verdict is final, no one is likely to suffer of whose conduct they do not morally disapprove; and this introduces a slack into the enforcement of law, tempering its rigor by the mollifying influence of current ethical conventions. A trial by any jury... preserves both these fundamental elements and a trial by a judge preserves neither..." Judge Learned Hand, U.S. ex rel McCann v. Adams, 126 F.2d 774, 775?76 (2nd Circuit, 1942).

"Jury acquittals in the colonial, abolitionist, and post-bellum eras of the United States helped advance insurgent aims and hamper government efforts at social control. Wide spread jury acquittals or hung juries during the Vietnam War might have had the same effect. But the refusal of judges in trials of antiwar protesters to inform juries of their power to disregard the law helped ensure convictions, which in turn frustrated antiwar goals and protected the government from the many repercussions that acquittals or hung juries would have brought." Steven E. Barkan, Jury Nullification in Political Trials, Social Problems, 31, No. 1, 38, October, 1983.

"During the first third of the nineteenth century,.. .judges frequently charged juries that they were the judges of law as well as the fact and were not bound by the judge's instructions. A charge that the jury had the right to consider the law had a corollary at the level of trial procedure: counsel had the right to argue the law --its interpretation and its validity-- to the jury." Note (anon.), The Changing Role of the Jury in the Nineteenth Century, Yale Law Journal 74, 174,(1964).

"...[T]he right of the jury to decide questions of law was widely recognized in the colonies. In 1771, John Adams stated unequivocally that a juror should ignore a judge's instruction on the law if it violates fundamental principles: "It is not only...[the juror's] right, but his duty, in that case, to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though indirect opposition to the direction of the court." There is much evidence of the general acceptance of this principle in the period immediately after the Constitution was adopted." Note (anon.), The Changing Role of the Jury in the Nineteenth Century, Yale Law Journal 74, 173 (1964).

See also Judge Van Ness' instruction to the jury in United States v. Poyllon, 27 F.Cas. 608, 611 (D.C.D.N.Y. 1812): ". . . this was in its nature and essence, though not in its form, a penal or criminal action; and they were therefore entitled to judge both of the law and the fact, and that the enforcing act could not apply in this case," and John Marshall's instructions to the jury in United States v. Hutchings, 26 F.Cas. 440, 442 (C.C.D.Vir. 1817): "That the jury in a capital case were judges, as well of the law as the fact, and were bound to acquit where either was doubtful."

The only Supreme Court Justice ever impeached, Samuel Chase, was charged with denying the right of jurors to judge the law. His defense argued, among other things, that:
"As little can this respondent be justly charged with having, by any conduct of his, endeavored to 'wrest from the jury their indisputable right to hear argument, and determine upon the question of law as well as the question of fact involved in the verdict which they were required to give.' He denies that he did at any time declare that the aforesaid counsel should not at any time address the jury, or did in any manner hinder them from addressing the jury on the law as well as on the facts arising in the case. It was expressly stated, in the copy of his opinion delivered as above set forth to William Lewis, that the jury had a right to determine the law as well as the fact: and the said William Lewis and Alexander James Dallas were expressly informed, before they declared their resolution to abandon the defence, that they were at liberty to argue the law to the jury." United States v. Fries, 9 F.Cas. 924, 934 (D. Pennsylvania, 1800).

"The judge cannot direct a verdict it is true, and the jury has the power to bring in a verdict in the teeth of both law and facts." Mr. Justice Holmes, for the majority in Horning v. District of Columbia, 254 U.S. 135, 138 (1920).

The most quoted instruction empowering a jury to judge the law comes from a civil case. In a rare jury trial in the United States Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Jay, speaking for a unanimous Court, instructed the jury:

"The facts comprehended in the case are agreed; the only point that remains, is to settle what is the law of the land arising from those facts; and on that point, it is proper, that the opinion of the court should be given. It is fortunate, on the present, as it must be on every occasion, to find the opinion of the court unanimous: we entertain no diversity of sentiment; and we have experienced no difficulty in uniting in the charge, which it is my province to deliver.

"It may not be amiss, here, Gentlemen, to remind you of the good old rule, that on questions of fact, it is the province of the jury, on questions of law, it is the province of the court to decide. But it must be observed that by the same law, which recognizes this reasonable distribution of jurisdiction, you have nevertheless a right to take upon yourselves to judge of both, and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy. On this, and on every other occasion, however, we have no doubt, you will pay that respect, which is due to the opinion of the court: For, as on the one hand, it is presumed, that juries are the best judges of fact; it is, on the other hand, presumable, that the court are the best judges of the law. But still both objects are lawfully within your power of decision."

Georgia v. Brailsford, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 1 (1794)
Schnier v. People, 23 Ill. 17, 30 (1859), quoted in Howe, Juries as Judges of
Criminal Law, 52 Harv. L.Rev. 582, 611 (1939):