Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2005-05-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed the celebration of Law Day to "vigilantly guard the great heritage of liberty, justice and equality under law." This year, the theme of Law Day acknowledges our heritage of liberty by recognizing the very embodiment of our democracy - our jury system.

The celebration of the American jury comes at a propitious time for the New York County Lawyers' Association. On May 26, NYCLA celebrates the 75th anniversary of its magnificent, Cass Gilbert-designed Home of Law in lower Manhattan. Its centerpiece is the auditorium - Andrew Hamilton Hall - a replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, the cradle of American liberty. NYCLA's Hamilton Hall is an enduring reminder of the most important jury trial in American history: the trial of John Peter Zenger.

Andrew Hamilton, the renowned Philadelphia lawyer, architect and designer of Independence Hall, represented Zenger in his seditious libel trial after Zenger's original lawyers were disbarred for criticizing the court. The Zenger verdict was a seminal example of the power of and by the people.

Though Zenger's acquittal is remembered for its vindication of freedom of the press and the doctrine of jury nullification, the precipitating events are often overlooked. They paint a chilling picture of governmental excess and injustice - an abuse of executive authority and assault on the independence of the judiciary that resonate with particular vibrancy in today's climate.

In 1731, Colonial Governor William Crosby arrived in New York and demanded that Rip Van Dam, senior member of the New York Provincial Council and acting governor, split his salary with him. Van Dam refused, prompting Crosby to sue him. Crosby attempted to do an end run around the jury system by creating a special court to hear the case, but was rebuked when New York Chief Justice Lewis Morris ruled against him. Crosby responded by removing Morris from the bench. Zenger, a German émigré who had risen from indentured apprentice to print shop owner, published an attack on Crosby's actions in his New York Weekly Journal.

Crosby tried to rig Zenger's trial by selecting his crony, James Delancey, to serve as Morris's successor as Chief Justice. Delancey imposed excessive bail, ensuring that Zenger would remain imprisoned. At trial, he instructed the jury that its sole duty was to determine whether Zenger had printed the articles, a fact Zenger never disputed. He declared that any attack on the governor's competence was seditious libel. Hamilton argued the truth of the writings, reminding jurors that their decision would affect all those living under British rule, and urged that a not guilty verdict would strike a blow against tyranny and arbitrary power.

The jury acquitted in ten minutes. Morris called the trial "the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which revolutionized America."

In our modern system, jury nullification is a conundrum. ABA President Robert Grey Jr. recently called juries "the handbrake on the abuse of power." Courts have long held that a jury has no inherent right to disregard the law. However, owing to the inviolate secrecy of jury deliberations and the finality of a verdict of acquittal, that power remains vested where it belongs in a democracy - in the hands of the people and the juries upon which they serve. As we seek to improve and modernize the jury system, we should be ever mindful of the role juries play as guarantors of our liberty and we should eschew any effort to emasculate their role as handbrakes on the abuse of power.


Norman Reimer