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Abstract

This essay is intended to provide in brief compass a review of much that is known about the American jury system, including the jury’s historical origins, its political role, controversies over its role and structure, its performance, both absolutely and in comparison to judges and mixed tribunals, and proposals for improving the jury system. The essay is informed throughout by 50 years of research on the jury system, beginning with the 1965 publication of Kalven and Zeisel’s seminal book, The American Jury. The political importance of the jury is seen to lie more in the jury’s status as a one shot decision maker largely independent of trial court bureaucracies than in its ability to nullify the law. Despite flaws in the jury process and room for improvement, the message that emerges from the literature is that juries take their job seriously and for the most part perform well. There is little reason to believe that replacing jury trials with bench trials or mixed tribunals would improve the quality of American justice, and some reason to think it might harm it.

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