By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Wednesday, February 22, 2017, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee gave a favorable report to a bill that would allow many Alabama Court proceedingss to have just six person juries rather than the traditional 12 person jury trials.
Senate Bill 197 was sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur). Orr said that the measure would save the state $252,000 per year. Sen. Orr said that his bill would allow the six person jury trials in misdemeanor and civil trials for matters below a certain amount. Orr said that this is done in a lot of states.
Sen. Rodger Smitherman objected. Smitherman said that this is wrong. “There is a reason the founding fathers set it at 12.”
Senator Smitherman voted no on giving a favorable report to SB197 and vowed that there would be, “A strong filibuster no,” if it came to the Senate floor.
The Alabama Political Reporter discussed the bill with suspended Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore (R). Chief Justice Moore said that, “The jury trial is a check on the system.” Moore warned that this this could cost somebody to lose their rights. The reason for a 12 person jury is, “To get a good cross section of people in the jury. That is more difficult with a small number of jurors.”
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution gives all citizens: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”
While a jury trial is a right of the accused; the Constitution does not designate a certain number, be that 6, 12, 4, or 18.
In the 11th Century the Anglo-Saxon King of England Aethelred “the Unready” established 12 member courts of minor nobles to both investigate and judge crimes, borrowing the custom from Scandinavia. In the 12th Century the Norman King of England Henry II ordered that 12 member juries decide land disputes. This re-established the jury system in English common law, upon which the American legal system would arise centuries later. It could be argued though that 12 is the customary standard and practice that has come down to us over the centuries.
In Williams v. Florida (1970), the US Supreme Court ruled that use of six-member juries in criminal cases does not violate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. In reaching this conclusion, the court found that despite centuries of tradition, the term “jury,” as it is used in the Sixth Amendment, does not necessarily refer to a group of exactly 12. The Constitution requires only that a body possesses “the essential feature of a jury,” the court explained. Specifically, the body must provide a safeguard against corrupt or overzealous prosecution by interposing “commonsense judgment” between the accuser and accused, and its verdicts must reflect “community participation and shared responsibility.” (Marc W. Pearce, JD, PhD, and Twila Wingrove, JD, MA, University of Nebraska–Lincoln 2009).
The motion received a favorable report on a 6 to 4 vote. It now moves to the full Senate for consideration.
Wikipedia and the American Psychological Association website were consulted during the writing of this article.