My Turn: Jury nullification keeps government in check
Today, we celebrate Jury Rights Day.
It was on this day in 1670 that Quaker William Penn of London was arrested, pleaded not guilty and subsequently argued against England’s Conventicle Acts, which outlawed the practice of religions other than the Church of England.
The judge instructed the jurors to find Penn guilty, but they refused to enforce a bad law. The court retaliated by jailing the jurors and withholding food and water.
Some of the jurors appealed their fines and imprisonment, and a higher court confirmed the right of the jurors to base their verdict on their best judgment and conscience. Even though there was a law against freedom of religion, the high court held that juries could not be required to enforce any law they thought was wrong.
This higher court ruling established that jurors cannot be punished for their verdict. It also set a foundation for our rights of freedom of religion, speech and assembly.
This ruling established protection for the jury, and firmly established the right of the jurors to refuse to accept bad government laws. This refusal of bad laws is called jury nullification or jury veto. Through jury nullification, people can control their government by refusing to allow bad laws to be enforced.
These underlying common law concepts firmly establish the fact that jurors cannot be punished for their verdict. Jurors are also not required to give a reason for the verdict they render. The fundamental right of jurors to render their verdict based on conscience is basic to the preservation of justice in a free society.
Penn later came to Colonial America and founded Pennsylvania.
New Hampshire jurors continue to have the authority to nullify bad laws.
Gov. John Lynch signed this into statute during his last term in office. He made New Hampshire the first state in the nation to enact such authority. This authority is now our peaceful protection to stop corrupt government servants from violating our rights.
(Dick Marple is a Fully Informed Jury Association representative and lives in Hooksett.)