Do Jurors Become Better Citizens?

What if jury service made you a better citizen? New social science research on juries and democratic engagement makes exactly that argument. Like an immunity boost for our civic constitution, jury service appears to ward off civic apathy.

In a nationwide study to be published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, researchers found that jurors who decide certain civil cases demonstrated improved voting rates in future elections. This finding amplifies earlier studies that found increased voting rates for those jurors who decided criminal cases. Apparently, the experience of participating in one civic forum inspires participation in other civic activities. While this has been a theory of juries since Alexis de Tocqueville made his famous insight that juries encourage political participation, it has remained difficult to prove until now.

The new findings are worth studying in an era where jury trials remain at record lows, jurors are failing to appear at embarrassing rates, and courts are looking to streamline the civil jury system. The findings -- from states as diverse as Colorado, North Carolina, Nebraska, Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington -- provide another argument for why jury service matters to America.

In an initial study, the researchers from The Jury and Democracy Project found that jurors who participated in criminal cases voted in political elections at a higher rate than those without the experience. Some citizens, of course, always vote, and some never do. But, for infrequent voters who had spotty records of past voting, the studies showed a statistically significant increase in future voting patterns for jurors. Interestingly, this increase did not correlate with jurors who were dismissed prior to verdict and, thus, did not deliberate to a final decision with fellow jurors. The key finding emerged that sustained deliberation to a final decision had a lasting impact on future civic involvement for years to come.

While clear in the criminal trial context, the findings were more nuanced for civil cases. In the follow-up study released this month, Professors John Gastil, Valerie Hans, and Traci Feller found that jurors who sat on civil cases which involved institutional defendants (businesses, governments, but not individuals) and involved certain legal issues (contracts, non-automobile related torts), also showed the same increased level of future voting. In simple terms, this means that civil suits against corporations or the government provided a civic boost. Legal issues that did not involve auto accidents provided a boost. Juries that included twelve citizens and a unanimous verdict requirement provided a boost. All other types of civil cases and jury configurations resulted in no demonstrable effect on future voting.

What to make of these studies?

First, in both criminal and (some) civil cases, jurors who reached a final verdict through deliberation showed improved voting rates. Those jurors who voted in the jury room, voted in the next election. This finding about the "civic spark" of jury service provides a counterpoint to the current trend of jury bashing and jury duty avoidance. If juries can help strengthen American democracy then jury service should be embraced not only by responsible citizens and the courts, but larger political forces. Investing money and effort to elevate the importance of jury service might have direct civic benefits to society. Currently, only a small fraction of the money spent to encourage people to vote is devoted to educating people about jury duty.

Second, the boost effect was only seen in larger juries required to come to a unanimous decision. The more voices in the jury room, the better the deliberation and the experience. While most criminal juries require twelve citizens and unanimity, many states have bowed to financial considerations and allow civil juries to have less than twelve jurors and do not require unanimity. For policy makers now considering further shrinking the jury size or loosening unanimity rules to speed up civil trials, there may be real civic costs to those changes. While obviously many court proceedings can be made more efficient and cost-effective, changing the size and decision-making rules of the jury may not be the place to start.

Third, the type of case mattered. Criminal cases involving the lives and liberty of individuals or institutional civil litigation affecting companies or the government apparently provided a more compelling experience. While important to the individuals involved, there was no corresponding civic boost to jurors deciding auto related negligence cases. If all civil cases are not alike, then maybe those courts looking to streamline civil jury trials should look to change those types of cases that do not provide a civic boost.

Finally and most importantly, the study strengthens the linkage that jury service and voting are connected. It is no accident that at the time of the American Founding, voting and jury service were seen as the twin political rights of citizenship. While today we tend to think of them separately, they have long been intertwined as part of our constitutional identity. The study shows that jurors internalized this linkage as part of the responsibilities of being a good citizen.

Of course, improved voting rates are only one measure of this nation's civic health. But, in a country where voting rates remain low, and where lackluster juror turnout has forced courts to reschedule trials, both aspects of civic life need a boost. As the new study now shows, jury service provides a double benefit, encouraging improved participation in both the judicial and political process.