Bringing in the Jury

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.

More than just demonstrating the how and why of the demise of American juries, Thomas’s narrative also (if implicitly) reflects upon the consequences of such a development. These include the possibility that the demise of the civil jury has tilted particular types of litigation against plaintiffs; the rise of non-Article III federal adjudication tied, in many respects, to the absence (or shrinking) of constitutional jury-trial protections; and the more general concern that one of the important checks on abuses by legislatures, prosecutors, and judges has been so diluted so as to no longer be visible as a check.

This last point is the heart of Thomas’s normative claim—that the demise of juries has caused us to lose sight of their structural role in the constitutional system as a check on the very institutions that have been complicit in their demise. And whereas those institutions can usually be trusted zealously to protect their own prerogatives (“ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” as James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51), Thomas argues that juries have a “unique inability to protect [their] own authority.” In other words, if one views juries as a co-equal structural feature of our constitutional system, they are fundamentally unequal in their ability to respond to real or perceived usurpations of their authority—or lack thereof. And those usurpations have happened through a number of measures designed to transfer decisionmaking power traditionally exercised by juries to legislatures, prosecutors, and judges. Because juries cannot really fight for themselves, other institutions ought to be held to constitutionally grounded limits on their ability to invade—and seize—the historical province of the jury.

Among other things, this leads to Thomas’s arguments about why summary judgment is unconstitutional; why the Grand Jury Indictment Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which has not been incorporated against the states, should be; why judges should not be able to enter judgments of acquittal in criminal cases; and why juries, not judges, must have the power to fix damages under any federal statute authorizing such a remedy. And although much of Thomas’s defense of these restorative moves is grounded in different species of originalism, the book closes with a powerful chapter taking a more comparative look at the contemporary role of lay jurors in other democratic legal systems—a role that, Thomas concludes, is far more powerful than anachronism-based critiques of juries might otherwise suggest. Simply put, Thomas’s proposals may not be as out-of-place with comparative contemporary practice as we might think at first blush.

Of course, Thomas’s proposals will strike many—especially legislators, prosecutors, and judges—as radical. Methinks that’s the point. And I, for one, find the demise of juries to be much more problematic in the criminal context than in civil cases, given the extent to which it tips the scales so much more decisively in one direction (to say nothing of the impact of the demise of the jury-trial right in non-Article III federal courts doctrine).

But Thomas’s book is a thing I like lots not because I agree with every word of it, but because I do not. It is the very best kind of legal scholarship—a narrative that does not force readers to agree, but does force them to think hard about the cause and effect of an undeniable trend and to reach their own conclusion about whether we have lost more than we have gained as a result.

Cite as: Steve Vladeck, Bringing in the Jury, JOTWELL (October 24, 2016) (reviewing Suja A. Thomas, The Missing American Jury: Restoring the Fundamental Constitutional Role of the Criminal, Civil, and Grand Juries (2016)),