A House bill promoting the notion that jurors can ignore Alaska's criminal code and let a lawbreaking defendant off the hook had a brief hearing Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee, then was held for later. The bill, fostering "jury nullification," has been a bipartisan favorite of some Fairbanks-area House members, with identical versions introduced in 2002 and 2009.Richard Mauer, House bill pushed by Fairbanks lawmakers promotes ‘jury nullification', Anchorage Daily News, March 26, 2014.
H.B. 315 is here. The bill information page has more links. The sponsor, Rep. Tammie Wilson, states:
Before one is able to understand why jury nullification is a good idea, one must understand the importance of a trial by jury. Our Founding Fathers considered them to be a powerful weapon in the war against tyranny. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution”. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that trial by jury was the “very palladium of free government” and a “valuable check upon corruption”.
Given the strength of these opinions, then, it is no surprise that the denial of trials by jury was one of the foremost acts of despotism listed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
As for the concept that juries have not only the power but the obligation to nullify unjust rulings of a judge, John Adams wrote, “It is not only (the juror’s) right, but his duty … to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court”.
Our Founding Fathers zealously defended this right and recognized that only an informed and empowered jury could effectively protect a defendant from the potentially harmful effects of autocratic judges. Jury nullification allows citizens to have the final say on what is fair in a court of law.
Therefore, I ask for your support of HB 315. Jury nullification is a good idea and one supported by Constitutional principles of freedom.Jur-E Bulletin from the National Center for State Courts reports:
The state attorney general's office opposes the bill, indicating it would lead to “unfair and disorderly trials.” Additionally, Doug Gardner, director of the Legislature's legal services division wrote a memo which expressed concern that the bill may not comply with U.S. Supreme Court precedent that "it is the duty of juries in criminal cases to take the law from the court, and apply that law to the facts as they find them to be from the evidence." Additionally, he wrote another memo comparing the provisions in House Bill 315 to New Hampshire Revised Statute 519:23-b, which is New Hampshire’s statutory authority for jury nullification.
The Fiscal Note Analysis prepared by the Department of Law includes some interesting commentary. It states:
Passage of this bill would result in more cases brought to trial by jury because even though the offender does not dispute that he or she broke the law, the offender could argue for the jury not to follow the law.