In the United States, we obtained much of our initial original jurisprudence from England. This “precedence” is called the common law. Because the English common law had such an impact on the development of our law it makes perfect sense that the English common law tradition of jury nullification directly influenced early American criminal trials. In the colonies, both the right to a jury trial, and the jury’s associated nullification powers, were viewed as vital to ensuring liberty.
The Founders, all of whom had the personal experience of living under an oppressive and capricious government, also believed in the importance of the right to nullification, particularly when viewed through the lens of liberty and freedom from tyranny. As one historian observed, “The writings of Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other founders–Federalists and Anti-federalists alike–all support the belief in a jury responsible for deciding both fact and law.” Similarly, jury trials and nullification were respected throughout the early days of U.S. history.[i]
Nevertheless, as the common law developed the question remained about if and how nullification would be incorporated into our system of governance. While the right to a jury trial is mentioned repeatedly throughout our founding documents, the word “nullification” is absent from all of them. Consequently, the United States Supreme Court had to grapple with this issue, and attempt to resolve it. However, their precedent regarding nullification has never entirely resolved the role of the jury in a criminal case or even the propriety of nullification.