Run Away, Jury!

We're being tried before dozens of imbeciles.


"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," Shakespeare's Dick the Butcher said in history's favorite lawyer joke. To which I always reply, "Show me a country without lawyers, and I'll show you a dictatorship."

I have no sympathy for the legal profession. I too consider a million lawyers at the bottom of the sea a good start; I watch no Court TV, am bored by legal dramas. I think you could randomly eliminate 75 percent of the laws in the U.S. Legal Code and make an improvement.

My grudging acceptance of a lawyer-based universe is instead rooted in historical observation: Human freedom, from Shakespeare's England to 19th-century Germany to modern America, rises in tandem with increasing numbers of lawsuits, court actions, and people getting rich in the legal profession. The more freedom people have, the more they'll sue each other.

This is half the reason I am skeptical of efforts at "tort reform." (The other half involves federalist concerns about Washington pre-empting suits in state courts.) But lately I've reconsidered my commitment to America's litigious free-for-all. The problem isn't the rapacious lawyers, though–it's the idiotic jurors.

"Whenever Merck was up there [on the witness stand], it was like wah, wah, wah," juror John Ostrom told The Wall Street Journal, imitating the drone of Charlie Brown's teacher after dunning Merck & Co. for $253 million in damages. He was describing his own reason for finding that Merck's Vioxx had killed a 59-year-old man, even though the trial established that the man had died of unrelated causes.

Ostrom's fellow jurors don't seem much cleverer. Marsha Robbins prayed to be made forewoman, and in an irrefutable proof of God's bounty ended up getting the position uncontested. Lorraine Blas noted in her questionnaire that she's a fan of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and when plaintiff's lawyer Mark Lanier in his closing arguments suggested a guilty verdict might land the jury a spot on Oprah's show, Blas, rather than being creeped out by this used car salesman's trick, laughed and enjoyed the lawyer's attention. And consider juror/medical genius Matthew Pallardy, who, despite evidence to the contrary, "kind of figured" the victim suffered from a Vioxx-related blood clot, "even if it went away real quick."

Of course, Merck is a big, evil corporation, and when you're dealing with big, evil types, everybody knows close enough is close enough. After convicting Martha Stewart on charges tangential to insider trading, camera-hogging juror Chappell Hartridge called the verdict "a victory for the little guys who lose money thanks to these kinds of transactions….Maybe it's a message to the big wigs."

Hartridge's bid to become a media big wig was tragically cut short when it was revealed that he had (contrary to his statements in the selection process) been arrested for allegedly beating up a girlfriend in 1997. Clearer sailing may await Ray Hultman and Eleanor Cook, jurors in the Michael Jackson case who recently told Type A legal commentator Rita Cosby that Jackson was undoubtedly guilty of the crimes with which he'd been charged. You'd think it would take a book to explain why they nevertheless voted to acquit him–and lucky for us, both have signed book deals to do just that.

Against dingbats like these, who wouldn't prefer to be tried in one of those fantasy melodramas where the jury consists of historical heavies like Genghis Khan, Vlad the Impaler, and Gwarvaq of Argus 7? If federal legislation and improved lawyer-ethics standards are nonstarters, perhaps good old shame is our best bet for reforming the system of trial by jury.

We could start by stating publicly what everybody admits in private: American jurors are a bunch of louts, nincompoops, and media whores who need to stop trusting their guts and start listening to people smarter than themselves. The future of the Lawsuit Nation may depend on it.