Japan has inexplicably decided to experiment with copying one of the worst aspects of the American legal system: juries.
As reported in the NYT earlier this month, the new system, to be introduced in 2009, involves citizens called “saiban-in” (“lay assessors”) who will sit on panels together with judges on the more serious cases.
According to the article, “a jury is one of the most important protections of a democracy.” Really? A random group of biased, cherrypicked, uneducated people off the street are going to decide on matters of life and death? For every high-profile case where the jury obviously got it wrong, how many hundreds or thousands do we never hear of?
The Supreme Court recently ruled that it was OK for relatives of a murder victim to sit in court with big buttons featuring the face of the deceased, and that this did not unduly influence the jury. (Carey vs. Musladin.) Maybe or maybe not. But this case raises the deeper issue of how we can possibly know what does or does not influence a jury. Do they really get “innocent until proven guilty”, or even “beyond a reasonable doubt”? I doubt it.
The Founders were quite certain that the jury system was important. After all, they wrote it into the Bill of Rights not once, not twice, but three times. But let’s remember: they were reacting to very particular abuses of the judicial system under colonial English rule. Juries were the only way to absolutely prevent such misuse of government power. And recall, the jurors back then were landed and educated.
There’s no need for a jury system in America today. We call up people with no expertise whatsoever and waste their time to help us condemn one of our underclass to prison for a decade for possessing a rock of cocaine.
There are those who say juries form a key part of the democratic system. The author of the NYT article goes so far as to say “if Japan’s effort to introduce a jury system fails, democracy movements elsewhere in Asia will suffer a serious setback.” But representational democracy and the jury system are similar only in the superficial sense that they involve citizen participation.
The article goes on to say that “it’s hard to imagine how Americans could fulfill their role as democracy advocates any better than by helping the Japanese become jurors.” Well, I don’t think the Japanese need any lessons from us in democracy. If we really wanted to help them become more democratic, why not push for a nationwide referendum on the US troops in Okinawa and elsehwere in Japan, then insist that the two governments actually abide by the results?