Jurors in the jury box

The Jury: Part 2

When I served as a judge, one of the most frequent contacts I had with the general public went something like this, “Hey Judge, I received a notice from the Sheriff that I have been selected for jury duty and I can’t serve because (insert excuse here.)”

The request would lead to a discussion of civic duty, which did not often result in the retraction of the request. But one thing did, “What if you needed a jury? Would you appreciate someone with your reason being excused?”

That at least caused the juror to think about it.

On the other hand, people would sometimes ask me if they could volunteer for jury duty. They would say, “Judge I would really like to serve on a jury, but I have never been called. Do you know why?” That would result in a discussion of whether the person was a registered voter as most Ohio counties use lists of voters to draw names for jury service and an explanation of how jurors are selected from those lists.

The Romans had an interesting way to select juries. Borrowing from the Greek tradition, the Romans chose from a panel of 81 citizens a jury of 51 (each side was allowed to excuse 15 potential jurors). The jurors or Judices would then hear the case under the supervision of a praetor of Judex Quaestionis. We would recognize the supervision of the trial as the role of the modern trial judge.

The Judices would vote on tablets that were marked with an “A” (Absolvo- Not Guilty), “C” (Condemno- Guilty), or the letters “N.L.” (Non-Liquet- Not Clear). Thus, under Roman law, there were two of three verdicts that favored the accused.

Service on a Roman jury was considered to be a great honor. So much so that jury service was initially limited only to members of the elite, the Senatorial class. During the populism that led to the breakdown of the Roman Republic, service was occasionally opened to the commercial or Equestrian class.

Only Roman citizens had the right to a jury trial. With the coming of the Empire, jury trials were restricted to the city of Rome and did not occur in the Provinces where justice was administered by pro-consuls, client-kings, and governors. Thus, the Apostle Paul, even though a Roman citizen, did not have a jury trial in Judea, but instead short-circuited his trial by appealing to the Emperor. Regardless of the method of trial, every Roman citizen had the right to appeal a serious case to the Emperor. This required transport of the prisoner to Rome and sometimes years in custody before the imperial courts got around to disposing of the appeal.

The takeaway from the Roman jury experience is that the right to be a juror was an honor and a highly prized part of citizenship. While I opened this article with a discussion of jurors seeking excuses, I am thankful for those American citizens who see jury service as a necessary part of citizenship and without whom our justice system would not work.

Thomas D. White

Senior Partner

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