From the milk carton graphic on the cover to the blurb by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Suja Thomas’s The Missing American Jury is not your typical, staid academic monograph. Indeed, although neither the punchline nor the stridency will come as a surprise to those familiar with her prior work (including my personal favorite—Why Summary Judgment Is Unconstitutional, an article that spawned an entire symposium), the book is a far more powerful, elegant, and concise explication of her long-held view of the unfortunate (and inappropriate) demise of the criminal, civil, and grand juries in contemporary American litigation. More than that, it is also a call for a systemic restoration of the jury, one grounded in a proper appreciation of the structural constitutional role juries were meant to play vis-à-vis the legislative, executive, and even judicial branches of government.
There is simply no denying Thomas’s descriptive claim. At the Founding, juries decided all but the most minor criminal cases. But by 1962, jury trials accounted for only 8.2% of cases tried in federal court. And by 2013, that number had more than halved, dropping to 3.6%. The numbers in state courts are even more bleak—and, in most cases, come on top of the absence of grand juries. And in civil cases, as will surprise absolutely no one, juries decided only 5.5% of federal cases in 1962—and 0.8% by 2013. There are lots of explanations, obvious and otherwise, for these trends. But whereas conventional narratives of the jury’s demise have emphasized the inefficiency, cost, incompetence, and inaccuracy of the jury, the real culprits, Thomas argues, are each of the branches of government, which have “seized the domain of the jury.” As Thomas explains, “the executive charges, convicts, and sentences, despite juries indicting, sentencing, and convicting in the past. The legislature can set damages, although only the jury historically had that power. The judiciary circumvents juries by resolving cases via mechanisms such as the motion to dismiss, summary judgment, judgment of acquittal, and judgment as a matter of law, procedures nonexistent at our Constitution’s founding.” And all of this is on top of what Thomas consciously excludes from her discussion, the move (sanctioned, if not affirmatively encouraged, by all three branches) toward non-trial settlement—whether through plea bargains in the criminal context or alternative dispute resolution in the civil context. Continue reading "Bringing in the Jury"