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“In the Hands of the People” by William L. Dwyer St. Martin’s Press, 237 pages, $24.95) Before becoming a U.S. District judge in 1987, William L. Dwyer spent 30 years as a trial lawyer. So there’s no doubt he knows a lot about juries. Yet Dwyer would seem to know little about selling books, judging by his approach to “In the Hands of the People.” In an age of exposure by media, the path to healthy sales is usually to attack venerable institutions — like the jury system. Dwyer, however, has done just the opposite. He has written a book defending the jury system. But, despite writing a book that might sell minimally, he has produced a monograph of which he can be proud. His counterintuitive message is layered, well-written and — to my surprise, given my muckraking proclivities — ultimately persuasive. Sure, there are flaws in the jury system, Dwyer says. Sure, specific juries have been embarrassments. But, for the most part, the system works well, he says. Most of the flaws attributed to juries are actually rooted elsewhere in the justice system, Dwyer argues. It’s not the fault of jurors that the courts are mired in what he calls the Six Deadly Sins of American Litigation — overcontentiousness, expense, delay, fecklessness, hypertechnicality and overload. “These are sins of process and access,” Dwyer says, “failures in how we do things, and for whom, and at what costs to budgets and sanity. … They are faults of the adversary system as presently operated, and not of the jury, although the jury is often blamed for them.” The biggest question Dwyer wrestles with is whether the naysayers, the so-called jury reformers, have thought through the alternatives. Does a more or less democratic society really want to encourage more bench trials and private arbitrations? No, Dwyer says. Given that judges (obviously) preside over bench trials and given that retired judges preside over many private arbitrations, Dwyer’s passion for jury trials is unexpected — and refreshing. Throughout the book, Dwyer never wavers from his belief that juries and democracy go hand in hand. “No other modern society has bet so heavily on the common man’s and woman’s good sense,” he says. He thinks the bet has paid off. After becoming a judge, Dwyer wondered if his positive outlook about juries, developed while he was an advocate, would change. Yet from the bench, Dwyer has watched jury after jury — even in highly technical or emotionally charged cases — “reach fair and honest verdicts.” He has seen juries “say no to official power when that small word must be uttered for the sake of freedom.” It has even occurred to Dwyer that the jury is the most democratic of all institutions in the United States, offering lessons for the electoral process. He writes:
If jury trials as a rule produce sounder results than we can count on in elections — which I believe they do –one reason may be the quality of information given to the citizens who must decide. In contrast to the chaos and mendacity of much political campaigning, and to the scattergun delivery of 30-second television commericals, a jury hears testimony that is kept to the point by an impartial referee, testedby cross-examination, and offered throughout a day. We should be able to learn something valuable from the differences in communication.

Juries not only practice responsible democracy, but also help spread the concept, Dwyer says. “With about 1.5 million Americans serving in courtrooms each year, the trial jury achieves a unique dispersal of governmental power. Far from being obsolete, it gains importance as elected officials become more distant from those they represent. … The jury, by placing decisions directly in the hands of the people, bridges the widening gap between citizens and their government.” While Dwyer’s generalizations and theories are fascinating, the book is grounded in specifics. Most of the book’s first half is historical. Dwyer is not a trained historian, but he does a fine job nonetheless of making the past come alive. He explains how jury systems evolved in various parts of the world, devoting most of his historical research to England. Jurors used to be at great personal risk if their verdict contravened what those in power wished. How juries gradually gained independence from rulers is one of the most compelling historical stories imaginable, and Dwyer does not disappoint. A turning point arrived in 1670, with the London trial of William Penn and Quaker compatriot William Mead. Accused of violating a law criminalizing religious practice outside the Anglican liturgy, Penn and Mead fought the charges vigorously, while the 12 jurors resisted intense pressure to find the defendants guilty. Four of the jurors held to their not guilty verdict despite fines, despite imprisonment. Their bravery emboldened future jurors. As he moves the book into the 21st century, Dwyer finds inspirational examples as well. He presents a myriad of ideas to make what he sees as a strong system function even better. Many of those ideas would require no legislation, because they are grounded in common sense. Here is an example:

From the moment they report for duty, jurors should be treated with the courtesy and respect due to officers of the court. They should not be kept waiting for hours or days on end; with good court administration, they don’t have to be. The one day or one case limitation now becoming popular puts a reasonable limit on the disruption of their lives. Nor should they be pent up in oppressive surroundings. Despite our nation’s prosperity, many courthouses are run-down and overcrowded; judges cannot change that, but can make sure that jurors get a fair allocation of whatever space exists. And every new panel, in every courthouse, should get a prompt and clear orientation on what it’s all about — the court, the flow of civil and criminal cases, the jurors’ duties, the roles of the judges and lawyers. Most jurors arrive on the first day full of hope or at least curiosity. To inspire them at the start is both easy and wise.

Although summoned for jury duty numerous times, I’ve never been seated. Someday, I hope to be. After reading “In the Hands of the People,” I wish it could be in his courtroom. It would be interesting watching Dwyer interact with the individuals who carry out the function he so reveres. Steve Weinberg is a journalist in Columbia, Mo. He is leading a national study of prosecutorial conduct that will be published by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

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