Herbert Spencer famously said that a jury is “a group of twelve people of average ignorance.” That is not a particularly rosy picture of juror competence, but it presents a far better view than the one held by many -- if not most -- modern commentators. The more common contemporary sentiment was captured by Mark Twain when he wrote, in his inimitable style, “[w]e have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve [people] every day who don't know anything and can't read.” Specifically, there is widespread belief that relatively educated members of jury pools are weeded out during the selection process, resulting in relatively undereducated juries. If Spencer were a contemporary legal commentator, he may have said that a jury is composed of people of above average ignorance, or perhaps more accurately, below average education.
In recent years, commentators have written dozens of articles offering both explanations for what causes this problem as well as elaborate and wide-ranging policy proposals aimed at fixing it. They are surely right to focus on this issue, because the problem is potentially serious, and the picture appears bleak. As trials continue to become more complex, it would be perverse if relatively educated members of pools -- who may be the very best kinds of jurors -- were systematically excluded from jury service.
However, there has been virtually no attempt to examine the extent and causes of the problem empirically. The scholarly literature relies on a combination of theory and anecdotal evidence.
This Article presents the results of a study, conducted in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, that puts these theories to the test. The study was designed to examine whether there is a bias in the jury selection process that results in relatively undereducated juries, and, if so, how much and why.
The results are surprising: there is no evidence that juries are undereducated relative to the venires from which they are selected. Indeed, juries seem to be better educated than the Connecticut population demographics reported by U.S. census data. Thus, our study suggests that the system is not broken in the way we typically imagine. We conclude that it would be a mistake to adopt the more radical policy proposals offered by scholars who argue that juries are relatively undereducated, at least until empirical evidence is produced that demonstrates that such a systemic problem actually exists. Further, our findings affirm our beliefs that empirical analysis (where it can be performed) is essential to policy discussion and that scholars ignore practical, non-academic literature at their peril.
Part II of this Article reviews current scholarship and traces the theories and proposals offered by commentators to explain and address the perceived problem of the relatively undereducated jury. Part III, the heart of our Article, presents the study's methodology and surprising results. Finally, Part IV discusses the implications of our findings and proposes a direction for further exploration of this important issue.
Levin, Hillel Y. and Emerson, John W., "Is There a Bias Against Education in the Jury Selection Process?" (2006). Scholarly Works. Paper 449.