Jury trials are disappearing and have been for some time now.

Plaintiff William Sherlach, left, hugs attorney Josh Koskoff while plaintiff Nicole Hockley hugs attorney Chris Mattei following the jury verdict and reading of $965 million monetary damages in the Alex Jones defamation trial at Superior Court in Waterbury, Conn., on Oct. 12. The verdict was the second big judgment against the Infowars host over his relentless promotion of the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting never happened. Brian A. Pounds/Hearst Connecticut Media/Pool via Associated Press

Today, fewer than 1% of civil cases filed in federal court go to trial. The number of criminal cases that go to trial is higher, but not much higher. This marks an extraordinary shift from the 1960s, when over 5% of civil cases and over 8% of criminal cases were decided by a jury in federal court.

Is this a bad thing? Should you care? The answer to both questions is “yes.” Even if you are fortunate enough to never get near a courtroom, you should be concerned about the jury trial’s disappearance.

America’s jury system is unique. Unlike other countries, which typically leave it to judges to decide civil disputes, the right to a jury trial in civil cases is enshrined in both the U.S. and Maine Constitutions. Indeed, as much as any other right, the jury trial is foundational to what makes our country truly democratic. Decisions about who to hold accountable and how to hold people accountable are made not by bureaucrats, but by us, the people.

Our founders recognized the importance of the jury trial in a democracy. John Adams put it this way:

“Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hogs.”


Jury trials are important to the parties in a particular lawsuit, of course. But their import goes far beyond that. They are important to the jurors themselves, who are often surprised at how meaningful they find the process of serving on a jury. Multiple studies have demonstrated that serving on a jury tends to increase other forms of civic engagement, including voting.

In addition, our jury trials are open to the public, and important trials are often covered extensively by the media, even broadcast live on TV or via the internet. This is important, too, as jury trials reaffirm the legitimacy of our justice system not just to citizens who happen to sit on the jury, but to the rest of us as well. Alex Jones can talk all he wants about the “deep state” and the globalists coming to get him, but the people who held him accountable earlier this month were six normal people from Connecticut. And we, as Americans, had the right to watch the entire process: from the selection of the jurors, through the presentation of evidence, to the moment they rendered a verdict.

There is a common sentiment you hear from lawyers and non-lawyers alike that critically important decisions (such as how much money to award in a complicated or emotionally charged case) shouldn’t be left to the whims of a hodgepodge of people from the community. I disagree with the idea that juries frequently err, but the argument about the wisdom of juries misses the point. Arguing that juries can’t be trusted to make decisions is like arguing that voters can’t be trusted to make decisions. It raises the question: If we, the people, are qualified to make hard decisions, who do we trust to make them for us? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy may have its problems, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternatives.

We are in a perilous moment: Americans are losing faith in the legitimacy of our democracy. Americans on both ends of the political spectrum are increasingly likely to feel that our institutions no longer represent the will of the people. Today more than ever we need to participate in the jury process and see juries in action. Jury trials remind us that, in our system, the concept of justice is defined by members of our communities. They remind us that, in our country, the people have the final say.

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