The Historic Trump Trial and Early Importance of the Right to a Jury Trial

On May 29, 2024, at 11:28 EST, a New York jury of seven men and give women filed out of a Manhattan courtroom to begin deliberations on the 34 felony counts against Donald Trump for falsifying business records in the first criminal trial of an American president. The implications of this constitutional process for the former president are impossible to ignore. His immediate fate—whether he will be an exonerated defendant or a convicted felon—is in the hands of a jury of his peers. This landmark, five-week trial has generated intense international interest, evoked broad discussion about the Constitution and the rule of law and provided a refresher course on the historic importance of the right to a jury trial to those who launched the American Revolution and drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. To our nation’s founders, the right to trial by jury was central to democracy and self-government.

Massachusetts was the first colony to safeguard what were regarded as traditional rights enjoyed by Englishmen. The Body of Liberties, a statute adopted in 1641 and essentially a comprehensive bill of rights, aimed to limit the power of magistrates, in whom all power had been concentrated. John Winthrop, the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said the goal was to frame limitations “in remarkable resemblance to Magna Charta, which should be received for fundamental laws.” A right to a jury trial was considered a fundamental right, one inherited, or so it was believed, from The Great Charter itself.

Magna Charta, written in 1215, stood for the principle of the rule of law and equal protection, and it was invoked by advocates of liberties and freedoms in England and the colonies as unassailable authority. Disputes about the existence of liberties were resolved through rhetorical, logical and emotional appeals to The Great Charter, marking the emergence and claims of rights and freedoms through mere assertion which, if backed by popular and reputable supporters, gained a foothold in statutes, charters and constitutions. Trial by jury, the colonists believed, was such a right. It was instrumental to their protection from English tyranny which, they believed was trampled by the Stamp Act of 1765. John Adams described the statute as “wicked,” for it created a “vast” number of new crimes that were to be tried by a judge rather than a jury. Consequently, the Stamp Act violated the colonists’ rights under English law and Magna Charta.

To Adams, the principal author of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, the world’s oldest written constitution, and a legal scholar devoted to separation of powers devices, the essential reason behind the right to a jury trial lay in the fact that the common people, in the broader sense, democracy, should share in the execution of the laws. The institution of a jury trial brought a mixture of “popular power,” so that “the subject is guarded in the execution of the laws.” Defendants, he explained, should be protected from the executive bringing the charges and the judges, whose independence was questionable. Defendants must be “perfectly free from then influence of others” and subject to the judgment of their peers.

Americans were a free people and, as Edmund Burke, the lone parliamentary defender of the American Revolution, observed, a free people can sniff tyranny in a far-off breeze. Colonists who believed with Adams and the Continental Congress that the Stamp Act would reduce them to state of “slavery,” resorted to arms in 1775 to defend old rights, including the right to a jury trial. The Declaration of Independence condemned King George III in its list of grievances for his denial to the colonists of their ancient right to a jury trial. Early state charters followed suit, celebrated the right to a jury trial as “ancient” and “sacred” and “inviolate” and “great,” and wrote into law the guarantee of a right to trial by jury. Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia and Vermont, in accord with the “Spirit of ’76,” were among the first to guarantee a jury trial as one of “the greatest Securities of their Lives.” At bottom, as the Northwest Ordinance affirmed, the right to trial by jury meant that a man’s right not to deprived of his liberty or property in absence of “the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.”

Jury trials, like all institutions, are not free from flaws and errors, but as Adams observed, they provide security against “the possibility of corruption.”

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