Jury Trial

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JURY TRIAL is the traditional mode of determining issues of fact at common law. Its development dates back far into the Middle Ages. Early jurors were drawn from the local community and thus brought to trials their own knowledge of the parties and events at issue. Property qualifications for jury duty existed in England, where officials selected juries from those qualified to serve. The jury trial was transplanted from England to the American colonies and became an integral part of their legal system in both civil and criminal law cases, with the exception that a more summary procedure was permitted in petty cases. In the early years of the Republic, Americans embraced the jury trial and attempted to utilize it as a limitation on despotic government. The U.S. Constitution, in Article III, section 2, contains the provision that "The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury." No mention is made of juries in civil cases. The omission was much criticized, but in the seventh of the ten articles of amendment adopted soon afterward to quell the fears of those concerned about the omission of a bill of rights, a provision was included to the effect that in common law suits involving more than twenty dollars, the right to trial by jury should be preserved. The Sixth Amendment elaborated upon the use of juries in criminal cases by providing that "the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed."

The jury system came under serious criticism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, partly because of clogged court calendars and the perceived inadequacy of juries to deal with complex questions outside the limits of jurors' experiences. While civil juries were subjected to the heaviest criticism, criminal juries came under similar attack. Jury selection had become slow and cumbersome, and many citizens attempted to avoid jury duty. Furthermore, opponents of juries began to focus not on the jurors' role in defending individual liberty, but rather on the claim that the jury was an expression of oppressive public opinion. These trends resulted in substantial changes in American jury practices, most of which attempted to control the jury and increase predictability. Some states did not adhere rigidly to the old common law requirement that the jury be composed of not more or less than twelve persons and that the verdict be unanimous. Increasingly, jury trials were not required in cases involving petty offenses, and in all cases, including cases involving serious crimes, the right to trial by jury could often be waived by the parties.

Traditionally, only men acted as jurors, and in practice only white men served. After the Civil War, several southern states enacted legislation preventing blacks from acting as jurors. In Strauder v. West Virginia (1879), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a West Virginia statute that stipulated that only white men could act as jurors. Despite this decision, southern states often found less explicit methods of excluding black jurors.


Alschuler, Albert W., and Andrew G. Deiss. "A Brief History of the Criminal Jury in the United States." University of Chicago Law Review 61 (1994): 867.

Friedman, Lawrence M. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

R. BlakeBrown

Carl BrentSwisher

See alsoBill of Rights in U.S. Constitution ; Constitution of the United States ; Milligan, Ex Parte ; Strauder v. West Virginia .