Paul J. Scheck, Esq.
The Briefs, February 2014
I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution. -- Thomas Jefferson, 1789
As lawyers (particularly litigation attorneys), we take for granted that a jury will be impaneled to hear and resolve our case, if the case reaches that stage. We also take for granted that the judge assigned to hear and rule on our case, whether at the motion or trial stage, will be impartial and resolve our case based on the law. The protection of our rights and liberties, as well as the resolution of financial and property disputes, are largely achieved through the teamwork of a judge and a jury who, working together in a common effort, put into practice the principles of our great heritage of freedom and justice. My recent experiences have made me revisit these fundamental truths and have given me a newfound appreciation for them.
During colonial times, the jury became a symbol of rebellion against the English King as colonists complained they were being denied the right to a jury trial guaranteed to all other Englishmen. In response to this abrogation of their rights, the colonists included guarantees of the right to trial by jury in their earliest documents. For instance, in the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson listed among the various complaints against King George III that he had been "depriving us in many cases of the benefits of Trial by Jury." As a result, the right to a jury trial was subsequently made a priority in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Equally as important, a fair and independent judicial branch has also been a cornerstone of our system of government. A second grievance referenced against King George in the Declaration of Independence was that he had made judges “dependent on his will alone.” Thus, the framers wanted to ensure that the judiciary would not be prejudiced by the political will or other outside influences. A fair and independent judiciary requires not only the freedom for judges to make case decisions without outside influence, but also the recognition of the judicial branch as a coequal branch of government, separate from the legislative and executive branches, responsible for governing itself and accountable to the public.
Over the past few months, two events reinforced to me the importance and uniqueness of these two essential components of our American judicial system. First, this past fall I received a jury summons in the mail instructing me to report to the Orange County Courthouse for potential jury service. My first reaction was probably a common reaction to such a notice, namely that the notice was an inconvenience and I did not have time for jury service. Despite my initial reluctance, however, I showed up at my designated time and enjoyed a day in the very comfortable (and technologically advanced) jury assembly room at our courthouse. I was called up twice for potential jury selection and participated in the voir dire process from the other side for a change. Once my fellow potential jurors discovered I was a lawyer, I instantly became a sounding board for questions and insights about the process. Through it all, however, I was greatly impressed by the serious, yet excited manner in which the potential jurors approached the process. Their view of the process humbled me and reminded me of the importance of jury service in the administration of justice.
I was also privileged last December to participate in the investiture ceremony for Judge Christi Underwood. Though this ceremony was indisputably an acknowledgement of Judge Underwood’s personal achievement in reaching this career milestone, the investiture itself was also an opportunity to show our high regard and respect for all members of our judiciary. There is perhaps no greater example of public service and contribution to the public welfare than that of our judges. Judges serve the unique and crucial role in our judicial system of remaining impartial, fair, and unbiased, while being presented with contrary arguments from very biased and self-serving parties. This is why their independence is vital to our system of justice, so they can render decisions solely in accordance with the law and not based on external factors or style.
So, the next time you receive a jury summons in the mail or appear before our fine Orange County judges, do so with pride and say thank you to the framers of our Constitution for allowing us to be participants in the finest legal system in the world!
Have a great February and Happy Valentine’s Day!
Orange County Bar Association The Briefs, February 2014, Vol. 82, No. 2. All rights reserved.