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An Essay on the Trial By Jury

Lysander Spooner

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Book Overview: 

For more than six hundred years that is, since Magna Carta, in 1215 there has been no clearer principle of English or American constitutional law, than that, in criminal cases, it is not only the right and duty of juries to judge what are the facts, what is the law, and what was the moral intent of the accused; but that it is also their right, and their primary and paramount duty, to judge of the justice of the law, and to hold all laws invalid, that are, in their opinion, unjust or oppressive, and all persons guiltless in violating, or resisting the execution of, such laws.

So begins Spooner’s epic on the jury, its origins and history. Spooner examines the history and powers of a jury, from the magna carta in King John’s time, to the practices in the 18th century. A classic work on law, Spooner argues that the decision of the jury is sovereign over the king’s law.

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Book Excerpt: 
. . .e arrest, ("no freeman shall be arrested," &c.,) and ending with the execution of the sentence. And it provides that nothing shall be done, by the government, from beginning to end, unless according to the sentence of the peers, or "legem terræ," the common law. The trial by peers was a part of legem terræ, and we have seen that the peers must necessarily have governed the whole proceedings at the trial. But all the proceedings for arresting the man, and bringing him to trial, must have been had before the case could come under the cognizance of the peers, and they must, therefore, have been governed by other rules than the discretion of the peers. We may conjecture, although we cannot perhaps know with much certainty, that the lex terræ, or common law, governing these other proceedings, was somewhat similar to the common law principles, on the same points, at the present day. Such seem to be the opinions of Coke, who says that the phrase nisi per le. . . Read More