You probably know that trial by jury was first guaranteed as a right in 1215 when King John signed the Magna Carta. Did you also know that in 1500 King Henry VIII abolished the right to trial by jury? From 1500 to 1689 that right did not exist for English citizens. A secret court called the “Star Chamber” could bring actions against anyone they or the King chose – in secret, with no indictments, no juries, no appeals. Basic individual rights that we take for granted were disregarded.
When people began arriving in and settling America in the early 1600s, they made sure that the charters for their colonies included the right to trial by jury because, among other things, so many of them had lost their land and had to pay outrageous taxes without being able to resort to juries in England.
The right to trial by jury allowed the colonists to challenge the king and parliament for instituting unjust laws and taxes. We all learned in school of the unjust law which said that only British tea company ships could bring tea into the colonies. American boats shipping tea were not allowed to dock. Can you imagine what would happen today if an American shipping company such UPS was told that it could not land any products from England in the U.S.? That only British shipping companies could? UPS would go to court and ask a jury to rule that they had a right to land goods in the US just like the English shippers. UPS would ask a jury to order payment to them for the money they had lost.
The colonial American shippers did exactly that. They went to American juries and the juries nullified the laws that were unfair to the colonists. The Revolutionary War started because England didn’t care what we or our juries said. They decided we were going to do things according to what the king and parliament said. We thought differently.
From Virginia’s first charter in 1606 forward, trial by jury has been a right in our Commonwealth. In 1791 the right to trial by jury was incorporated into the US Constitution. Our Constitutions give us the right to a trial by jury to protect each and every one of us from another Star Chamber, from losing our lands or our rights without a jury agreeing that it is fair.
Although sitting in a jury box might not be the way you dream of spending your time, by doing so, you are guaranteeing the Constitutional rights of yourself and every other American. You are guaranteeing that our system of laws works as it was intended and that our Constitutional rights are upheld. You are guaranteeing every citizen a chance to present his case and have an impartial jury decide.
Don’t let anyone say or think that serving on a jury is not important. It is very important, not just to those involved in the trial but to all Americans. Don’t think that another Star Chamber is impossible, it is indeed possible. Jury service is a privilege. It is an obligation of every citizen. It is the way to guarantee the freedoms we have come to take for granted.
Written by Attorney Yvonne T. Griffin
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