The Benefits of Juries

Steven Groschen, MJLST Staff Member

Nearly 180 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville postulated that jury duty was beneficial to those who participated. In an often quoted passage of Democracy in America he stated that “I do not know whether the jury is useful to those who have lawsuits, but I am certain it is highly beneficial to those who judge them.” Since that time many commentators, including the United States Supreme Court, have echoed this belief. Although this position possesses a strong intuitive appeal, it is necessary to ask whether there is any evidentiary basis to support it. Up until recently, the scientific evidence on the effects of serving on a jury was scant. Fortunately for proponents of the jury system, the research of John Gastil is building a scientific basis for the positive effects of jury duty.

One of Gastil’s most extensive studies focused on finding a correlation between serving on a jury and subsequent voting patterns. For purposes of the study, Gastil and his colleagues compiled a large sample of jurors from various counties–8 total–across the United States. Next, the research team gathered voting records for jurors in the sample–examining each juror’s voting patterns five years prior and subsequent to serving on a jury. Finally, regression analyses were performed on the data and some interesting effects were discovered. Individuals who were infrequent voters prior to serving as a juror on a criminal trial were 4-7% more likely to vote after serving. Interestingly, this effect held for the group of previously infrequent voters regardless of the verdict reached in the criminal trials they served on. Further, for hung juries the effect held and was even stronger.

Despite these findings, the jury is still out on whether the scientific evidence is substantial enough to support the historically asserted benefits of jury duty. More evidence is certainly needed, however, important policy questions regarding jury duty are already implicated. As researchers begin correlating jury participation with more aspects of civic life, there remains a possibility that negative effects of serving on a jury may be discovered. Would such findings serve as a rationale for modifying the jury selection process in order to preclude those who might be negatively affected? More importantly, do further findings of positive effects suggest more protections are needed during the voir dire process to ensure certain classes are not excluded from serving on a jury and thus receiving those benefits?