“A Jury of One’s Peers”
The American jury system can trace its heritage back to England on June 15, 1215 when King John of England was forced to agree to sign and seal a feudal document designed to provide protection and ensure the rights of a small group of citizens at the top of the feudal system. Although many people believe that the term “a jury of one’s peers” comes from the United States Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, the phrase originated in this document - the Magna Carta - signed by King John. We adopted our jury system from England. One of the triggering factors of the American Revolution was that the right to a trial by jury had been taken away. Since that time, the American jury system has undergone many changes and is continually evolving with the social conditions of our society.
The Florida Case that Changed It All
One of the most drastic changes in the American jury systems was sparked by a case decided in this state. Florida’s Constitution of 1838 guaranteed the right to trial by jury. However, under this Constitution, only free white males could serve as jurors. This was the norm for the next seventy years. In 1908, a case out of Jacksonville, Florida, decided by Justice James B. Whitfield, outlawed the blanket exclusion of African-American men on Florida jury panels. Exactly one hundred years ago, Justice Whitfield wrote that “every person being tried in a court of justice is entitled to have a jury selected and summoned without illegal discrimination of any character.” Even though Florida was the first of the southern states to clearly outlaw any type of discrimination, this promise would not actually be realized for almost another century.
Not Just for White Men
After the Jacksonville case was decided in 1908, African-American men were permitted to sit on juries in Florida. At this time, no women were allowed to serve as jurors. Even though women attorneys were trying cases in Florida since the late 1890s, women were still subject to an absolute exclusion from jury service until 1949. Even then, and for a number of years after, women would have to contact the clerk of their county court and request that their name be added to the list of potential jurors. The Florida legislature changed this law in 1967 to include women on the list of those residents who could serve as jury members, but still included an automatic exemption if they were pregnant. Women could also receive a potential exemption if they had young children at home. This potential exemption was extended to fathers with young children at home in 1983.
Traditionally, throughout our country, attorneys have had the right to excuse a certain number of jurors without having to provide any reason for excusing them. This privilege is called a “peremptory challenge” and is still used in practice today. However, in 1984, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that it was against the law to use a peremptory challenge as a means of excluding jurors based on their race. A decade later, in 1994, the Court extended this ruling to women by making it unlawful to excuse women solely because of their gender.
Although our jury system may not be perfect and is in a continuous state of change, the concept of having “a jury of one’s peers” determine the outcome of each case still perseveres as the foundation and is the one constant ideal in our justice system in Florida and in America.