On a recent visit to the Dominican Republic, I toured las Casas Reales (the Royal Houses) in Santa Domingo -- the seat of Spain’s government in the New World. It dates from the very early sixteenth century when Columbus’ son served as the territorial governor of Hispaniola (now the DR). Here, I’m pictured in the colonial courtroom, standing before the dais where the Chief Judge would sit.
Do you notice what’s missing? There’s no jury box. It’s not really missing, however, because it never existed. Under the civil law tradition (sometimes called Roman Law or Continental Law), cases are argued before and decided by a judge. Many countries, including France and Spain, follow the civil law tradition to this day.
In the United States, our common law tradition -- including the right to trial by jury -- stems from our English roots. The common law places priority on a body of law developed over time by a series of decisions that become “precedent.” Juries weigh and decide the facts and whether those facts show liability or guilt under established legal precedent.
The jury system today is more firmly entrenched in the United States than anywhere else in the world, even more than in England itself, where most non-criminal cases are now decided by judges. Juries do important work and still help shape our jurisprudence. Keep that in mind next time you want to get out of jury duty! We need you!