Justice David Souter: “Juries are Smarter than Judges”

Justice David Souter delivered a comment during oral argument this week which, according to the Legal Times’ Tony Mauro, “is sure to reverberate for years to come.”

Souter made the comment during a complex argument in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, a case brought by an employee under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that involves a difficult burden-of-proof issue. Mauro explains:

[Gross] involves a “mixed-motive” age discrimination claim. That’s one in which the employee claims an adverse job action — here a demotion — was taken because of his age, but the employer says that the action was taken for other, permissible reasons. The justices wrestled with how much evidence the plaintiff needs to present, and what kind.…

[The argument] was getting so layered and complex that at one point, Justice David Souter suggested ditching all the standards and burden-shifting and leaving it up to sensible jurors. “Juries are smarter than judges,” he announced.

This comment about juries stands in dramatic contrast to recent opinions expressed by Justice Souter’s more conservative colleagues on the Court, who have appeared hostile – even mocking — toward trial juries. In his dissent in Wyeth v. Levine, for example, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia, dismissed jurors as too “ill-equipped” to evaluate whether a drug company had done enough to warn patients about the risks associated with its products – even though both parties had the chance to fully argue their case.

Justice Souter’s comment, on the other hand, clearly captures a key, and often overlooked, sentiment of the Constitution’s Framers, who viewed juries as a “bulwark for liberty,” critical as a proxy for “the People” in determining whether a person could properly be charged with a serious crime or be found guilty or liable for violating the law. The importance that the Framers placed on juries is in fact expressed in three of the ten Amendments in the Bill of Rights: the Fifth, guaranteeing the right to an indictment by a grand jury; the Sixth, guaranteeing the right to a trial by an impartial jury in criminal cases; and the Seventh, guaranteeing the right to a trial by jury in civil proceedings involving monetary damages – civil proceedings such as, for example, Gross v. FBL Financial Services.

It is rather alarming, therefore, that any judge would casually dismiss the decisions of jurors, which the Framers viewed as expressing the collective wisdom and judgment of the citizenry. We certainly hope Justice Souter’s comment “reverberates” for many years – or at the very least, as far as to the ears of his seemingly jury-averse colleagues.