Justice Matters: Missouri honors the vital work of jurors

21 April 2014

Justice Matters: Missouri honors the vital work of jurors

Photo of Chief Justice Mary R. RussellThe following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.

Every day across Missouri, hundreds of citizens are summoned to the courts to serve on juries. They come to perform one of the most significant civic duties granted to citizens – they serve as fair and impartial jurors.  

The right to trial by jury is a hallmark of the American justice system. It was such an important concept to the authors of the US Constitution that this right was placed in the Bill Rights. To honor the vital work of jurors performed in courthouses across our state, April 28 through May 2 is designated as Missouri’s Juror Appreciation Week.

Among the varied complaints our founding fathers had with the monarchy of England was that judges, who served at the pleasure of the king, arbitrarily and disproportionally decided whom to punish and how. Colonists accused of crimes could be forced to return to England for trials, without access to witnesses or supporters.

Under our system today of trial by jury, a defendant is entitled to a jury of citizen-peers to determine what evidence to believe, who is telling the truth, whether the state proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and what punishment is appropriate.  In making such determinations, jurors, just like judges, take an oath to set aside their personal beliefs and to focus solely on the facts and law in each case they hear. The right to trial by jury is guaranteed in all criminal cases and is available in some types of civil suits. Indeed, the American right to trial by jury in criminal cases truly sets us apart from many other nations. For example, in South Africa, where an Olympic athlete is on trial for murder, no right to a jury trial exists.

Being summoned for jury service may always not be practical or convenient. Some prospective jurors may lose pay from being absent from work, and the pay for jury duty may be a hardship on their personal finances, especially for a long trial. Other prospective jurors may be responsible for caring for young children or aging relatives and cannot spend a week in a courthouse away from them. But those who do serve on juries across our state do so with a serious commitment to and respect for the process and the oath they take in performing their functions. Perhaps it is called jury “duty” because it is one of the most important civic responsibilities we can fulfill as American citizens.

I always have been impressed with the dedication of jurors in Missouri. I salute the many men and women who have served and continue to serve in courtrooms all around the state. If you are called for jury duty, please, answer the call, and fulfill this important civic responsibility to your community. Thomas Jefferson believed serving on a jury is more important than voting: “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

Provided courtesy of the Utah State Courts, here is a graphic depicting the importance of a fair and impartial jury, should you wish to use it: 
Graphic of cat jury and dog defendant, courtesy of the Utah State Courts