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Impartial Judging and Locke’s Thoughts

April 16, 2011

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This summer I will be interning at the Washtenaw County Courthouse under Judge Melinda Morris, who deals with both criminal and civil cases. Earlier in the term, when we read Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, we focused on Locke’s idea of the impartial judge, and how impartial judging is vastly important to the foundation of government; the government formed through the consent of the people. If you remember, Locke states that, “And so whoever has the legislative or supreme power of any common-wealth, is bound to govern by established standing laws, promulgated and known to the people, and not by extemporary decrees; by indifferent and upright judges, who are to decide controversies by those laws” (Locke, sec 131). In this blog, I would like to apply the idea of impartial judging to our current judicial system, namely how the Washtenaw County Courthouse utilizes juries in order to make decisions in terms of convictions. Furthermore, I would like to pose the question: Can we consider convictions based on a unanimous jury decision to be a form of “impartial judging”? 

            So from how I understand it, once both sides of the case are heard and testimony is exhausted, the jury members are sent to deliberate on what they have heard, and in turn determine whether or not the defendant is guilty or not guilty. I am also aware of the fact that all possible jurors go through a jury selection process prior to this, in order to eliminate all conflicts of interest and bias that may arise due the potential jury members’ experiential relation to a similar issue.

            However, with all this being said, I personally still don’t feel that the conviction process in our judicial system is “impartial”. What is to say that someone in the jury had withheld information in regards to having experienced a similar issue in their own lives, such as an instance of domestic violence, which will hold some sort of influence on their decision as to convict the defendant or not? Let me provide an example of such an instance. Let’s say that John Smith was currently being tried for committing three counts of domestic violence against his wife. After hearing the testimony of both the defendant and the plaintiff, they are sent back to the room to deliberate. Unluckily for the defendant however, two of the folks on the jury had been victims of domestic violence in the past, yet had withheld this information during the jury selection procedure. Furthermore, it seems quite clear from the evidence that the client is not guilty. However, lets say that these two individuals are able to persuade the rest of the group to concur with their guilty verdict. Finally, deliberation has concluded, and they have convicted the defendant on all three counts. The problem, however, is that in reality he was innocent.

            Can we really consider this to be impartial judging? In my personal opinion, we can’t. Though the judge in end gets to determine what the exact sentence will be for the defendant, the man was still convicted on three counts of a crime that he didn’t even commit, based on the bias of the two jury members, who decided to go against the law and withhold information during the selection process. Obviously in this case, it is not impartial judging. Furthermore, I can only imagine how often this actually happens in courtrooms throughout our country, both this instance and the opposite; where folks are considered innocent because of a few deviating folks who have committed similar crimes and expressed a sense of sympathy for the defendant. Therefore, in my opinion, though I don’t have a better alternative to the idea of a jury trial, I feel as though it is still not impartial, and therefore something should be done.

One Comment
  1. jasonkraman permalink
    April 17, 2011 10:11 PM

    I would agree with your post that judging is not impartial. We are all merely human beings and being completely impartial is impossible. We are unstable with our emotions and to think that we would not let them into deliberation on a jury is only wishful thinking. However, I dont know if this means that our judicial system is flawed. I think it simply means that the construction of justice that Locke formulated set the bar too high. I think our judicial system can be effective, even if it is sometimes impartial and even if does sometimes cut the corners to serve a certain purpose. Recently watching the show, The Wire, the prosecutors use a witness that they know is lying but also know will be an effective and convincing witness. They do so to put away a drug dealing murderer. Although, this is not ideal and the jury probably felt inclined to convict him after such convincing testimony, the trial still put away a man who was a major threat to the well being of society. Although our current system has it flaws, I believe it still works to keep the bad guys in and the good guys out. I’ll concede that its not perfect but I think its an imperfection that we must settle for.

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