North Coast Journal

by Ron Ross

Involuntary servitude

The one good thing about the O.J. trial is that it's exhibiting the sorry condition of our justice system. The element most obviously in need of reform is the jury system.

Our jury system is one of our few remaining remnants of involuntary servitude. Of all the people in a court room, the only ones who are there involuntarily are the accused and the jurors. (Subpoenaed witnesses are also involuntary participants but only for short durations of time.)

We treat the jury process much too casually. We pretend that justice can be served by randomly selecting who will serve on juries. We pretend that trials are simple enough that people with no training, experience or expertise can fill the bill. It makes no sense.

The least-appreciated feature of a market economy is the fact that it relies on voluntary exchange. The absence of force in such arrangements is important in itself, but voluntary exchange also accounts for much of the productivity we enjoy. People naturally do a much better job when they work voluntarily rather than by coercion. People gravitate toward the kinds of jobs they are best at.

Numerous problems invariably arise when you use coercion instead of voluntary exchange to get something done. Even if you have strong feelings about doing your civic duty, it's hard to be conscientious doing something you're forced to do.

A tradition of our legal system is that we will be judged by a jury of our peers. Is there anything inherently wrong with those peers being professionals? The constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury, but it specifies nonemof the details.

It's not hard to imagine a vastly superior jury system to what we have. There is no doubt a significant number of people who would like to be professional jurors. There could be juror training and certification programs. Jurors would learn from experience and have documentable listings of previous trials.

Court cases, especially civil suits, are frequently complex and technical. To expect untrained, inexperienced people to decide such cases is a travesty.

From an economic perspective, problems always arise when we underpay resources. At $5 a day, we are not paying the full cost for jurors. The predictable result is the wasteful use of jurors.

If jurors were paid an amount sufficient to get their voluntary participation, it's reasonable to assume we would see fewer trials dragging on ad nauseam.

The fundamental incentive we have to economize resources is having to pay to use those resources. What's the proper price? It's the price that results from voluntary exchange transactions; that is, through the interplay of supply and demand.

Imagine if buildings could be commandeered for use in trials. There would be little incentive to economize on space.

If we paid jurors enough so that no one would be forced to serve, the high cost of court cases would climb even more. Could we afford it?

Think of it this way: Do budget constraints justify involuntary servitude?

If so, why stop with jurors? Why not make the court clerk serve for $5 a day as well?

In trials such as the O.J. trial, jurors are sequestered for long periods of time. Like the accused, the jurors have been imprisoned against their will. We have a real problem when there is such a flagrant injustice within the justice system itself.

People who are unfortunate enough to end up on juries, particularly in lengthy trials, bear an arbitrary and disproportionate burden of our justice system. Is that fair? Is there no other alternative? Is it absolutely necessary?

There is no fundamental reason preventing us from switching to a voluntary jury system just as we converted to an all-volunteer Army. Before we ended the draft, defenders of the status quo argued that an all-volunteer Army could never work and gave countless reasons why.

None of those reasons turned out to have any merit. No one is forced to serve, and the quality and commitment of people in the armed forces is now as high as ever.

A justice system is one of the linchpins of a civilized society. A perfect justice system is not possible, but it's vitally important that we insist on high standards.


A former professor of economics, Ron Ross is a financial planner with Premier Financial Group, Eureka.


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