Entrenching and Expanding Rights

In an interesting post over at Concurring Opinions, Renee Lerner discusses the history of the constitutional protection for trial by jury, including in civil cases, in the United States, and suggests that this history holds a cautionary lesson. Prof. Lerner highlights the importance which the common law heritage and the purported “immemorial” “rights of Englishmen” associated with it had for the Americans of the Revolutionary period. These rights were thought to have been codified in the Magna Carta ― and “[t]he right Americans most often invoked in connection with the Great Charter was the right to trial by jury.” This, as prof. Lerner explains, was in no small part a myth: “The barons at Runnymede,” when they forced the Magna Carta on King John,

certainly did not intend to enshrine common-law trial by jury, which did not exist for criminal cases in 1215 and hardly for civil cases. In the language of Chapter 39 concerning “judgment of his peers,” the barons were trying to ensure that they would be tried by other barons, not by royal judges or ordinary juries.

But no matter. In the 17th century, Lord Coke and others fabricated the “myth” of an ancient right to trial by jury, and their ideas were immensely influential in America. Partly for this reason, and because “Americans of the colonial and revolutionary era also exalted the jury, as a means of furthering self-governance and nullifying despised British laws,” they entrenched it in many State constitutions and, eventually, in the Federal one.

For prof. Lerner, this was a very unfortunate mistake, for “the self-governing and law-nullifying functions of the jury came to seem unnecessary at best and often harmful.” Trial by jury, she writes, “chang[ed] from a prized right of the people to a nuisance.” And in her view, this history demonstrates the superiority of the flexible British constitution, which lacks entrenched rights. When a right becomes a nuisance, it can simply be got rid of.

Now to me this seems, to be sure, to point to a cost of rights-entrenchment ― but this cost is very much a feature, not a bug. Indeed, it might be the most important feature of them all. A major part of why Americans and, increasingly, other nations (including, of course, Canada) chose to entrench rights is precisely so that they cannot be discarded whenever a majority thinks that they have become a nuisance. (I don’t know whether most Americans actually think that jury trials are a nuisance. But let’s assume that they are.) It’s not just trial by jury ― the same goes for every right entrenched in every constitution in the world. We should be aware of the perils of inflexibility, but I don’t think that they are enough to make the case against entrenching rights. And it is worth noting that they can be addressed by somewhat more flexible constitutional amendment procedures than that of Article V of the U.S. Constitution or Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 (though its inflexibility is as much a product of politics as of the rules it contains), without abandoning entrenchment altogether.

What I think is a more interesting aspect in prof. Lerner’s story is one that she does not dwell on ― the expansion of the right to a trial by one’s peers from the nobility to the entire citizenry. In a way, this story is unremarkable. As Jeremy Waldron persuasively argues, it is the story of the idea of dignity ― an exalted status once reserved to kings and noblemen, but now attributed to all human beings. It is also the story of the right to religious liberty, which was at first only afforded to Protestants in England, and then expanded to embrace other familiar religious groups (such as Catholics and Jews), and later still the less familiar ones (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) and the unbelievers. It is the story of the franchise, first the preserve of propertied men, and then expanded to the middle and working classes, to women and, in Canada at least, to prisoners and other groups that it traditionally excluded. We usually see these and other expansions of rights as unequivocally good. They have obvious upsides for the people who benefit from them and arguably for society as a whole, and ― so our conventional thinking goes ― no obvious downsides. Some people would beg to differ, but we tend to regard them as retrograde and bigoted. It is here that the story of the right to a jury trial might serve as an interesting cautionary tale.

If jury trials involved, both as parties and as jurors, only a narrow class of wealthy and, for the most part, not very busy people, they would not be the “nuisance” prof. Lerner describes. For one thing, the barons who demanded and obtained the right to be tried by their peers knew enough about each other’s affairs (if not specifically, then at least about the sort of life people of their social class led) to serve as reasonably effective triers of facts. They did not have, over the course of a trial, to understand the complexities of a line of business (or even, for that matter, of the functioning of a criminal gang,) For another, underpaying them for their work, or indeed not paying them at all, wasn’t the problem it is for jurors today (not only in the United States, of course). As much as the advent of the “representative republics” and the “commercial society,”  the expansion of the right to a jury trial, and the concomitant right and duty to serve on juries, to all citizens is the reason this right might be problematic today. (Incidentally, I should make clear that I do not express a definitive opinion on whether it is; at least in criminal matters, I’m tentatively inclined to think it is a useful safeguard.)

The story of the right to a jury trial might thus show that expanding a right from some citizens to all can cause significant problems in at least some cases. Of course, even if we agree with this interpretation of the story prof. Lerner tells, we need not come to the same conclusion regarding any other right. Each case must be assessed on its own merits. But we probably should at least acknowledge the possibility.

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