Thursday, January 30, 2014

New Hampshire considers new jury nullification statute

In class we discuss the concept of jury nullification and the issue of whether it would be proper for an attorney to ask the jury to ignore the law when deliberating.  As you know, this is an issue that has been around forever and one about there seems to be a never ending debate.  There are organizations devoted to informing the public about nullification and there is literature warning about its dangers.  Now the topic is back in the news because the state of New Hampshire is considering enacting a law that would require judges to inform the jury of its power to engage in nullification.

As you would expect, not everyone agrees this would be a good idea.  An Op-Ed piece in the Chicago Tribune states, for example, that "[f]or judges to offer this as an option, as the New Hampshire bill proposes, would undermine the rule of law. The power to nullify is not the same as the right to do so."

Over at Gawker, a short article explains how jury nullification can be double edge sword: "Jury nullification seems like a great idea when you imagine using it to free, say, low-level drug offenders who face long mandatory sentences that are fundamentally unjust. It seems like a terrible idea when you imagine racist southern white juries using it to railroad a black defendant just because they don't like his looks."  And then concludes that "[t]he notion that twelve randomly selected citizens are the most effective backbone of a fair justice system is already a bizarre one; to give them explicit instructions to ignore the law if they so choose seems like a dangerous step towards a legal system in which slick rhetoric, outward appearance, and expensive lawyers are more important than the actual law. Uh... even more so than now. If you're a consequentialist, it might be fair to support jury nullification under the assumption that striking a blow against the War on Drugs will do a great deal of good. But the long term consequences of this policy are impossible to know."

I am still undecided on this one...  I am sympathetic to the argument that says that attorneys should be allowed to argue nullification to the jury, but since nullification can be used for evil purposes as well as for good, I have always been afraid of the dangers of nullification.

For this reason, I think I would allow attorneys to decide if they would want to encourage the jury to engage in nullification (ie, I would not consider it improper for them to urge the jury to ignore the law), but I would not favor a statute that would mandate the judge to do so.  I think the decision on whether to present the option to the jury should be a case by case tactical decision left to the defense counsel.

1 comment:

  1. IMHO, it depends on whether the state's constitution indicates that the jury is to be both finder of fact and to determine the law (Ind. Const. Art. I § 19 , for example). State history should also play a role. A state like ours which is Jeffersonian and Jacksonian would traditionally place such a power in the hands of ordinary folks like jurors.