Monday, 4 July 2016

The Jury System And Democracy Inside The American Court

By Paul Shalala in Cortland, New York
Judge Rumsey takes a selfie in court with Fola of Nigeria

Picture this: a Supreme Court Judge taking a selfie with a visitor inside the courtroom, the judge laughing and smiling inside the courtroom while giving a lecture.

Did you hear it right? Yes i said inside the Supreme Court.

I guess you are already saying 'What went wrong? Are you sure it was a judge?'

Well, that is not all: the Judge later joins you for dinner and interacts with everyone as beers, food and drinks are served.

Is that in Zambia? No sir!! Not at all.

If its in Zambia, that judge would be on the front page of daily newspapers the following day.

It can never happen in our conservative country because we have decided to maintain the decades old English style of a judiciary even after London has moved on and reformed its judiciary.

Remember the recent case were Zambia's former Chief Justice Ernest Sakala was publicly condemned for shaking hands with former President Frederick Chiluba at a funeral service?

Any way, the scenario above actually happened in my own eyes.

It happened inside the Supreme Court in Cortland City, New York state.

By the way, judges in the United States of America are as free as any other member of society.

Take for example, Justice Phillip Rumsey of the Supreme Court in Cortland County, he is a simple and down to earth man who at first impression does not look like a judge.

He is so common that he mingles with everyone without a problem.
Judge Rumsey addressing the Mandela Fellows

Probably its because of the mode of his ascendance to the office.

He is an elected official.

Judges in Counties are publicly elected and they are very popular in the communities were they work from.

Cortland County has been electing its judges since 1846.

On Friday, Judge Rumsey hosted the 25 Mandela Washington Fellows who are studying Public Management at Syracuse University in the neighbouring Onondaga County.

The judge opened his courtroom to the fellows so they could understand how the American judicial system works at county level.

He explained that the history of the court system in Cortland Country stretches back to 1691, way before the US got its independence from England in 1776.

"After our independence, we adopted many English laws....... But the jury is a unique feature in our legal system...... It is important and has a long history," said Judge Rumsey.

The jury is a group of people who are selected to analyse a court case and decide whether an accused person is guilty or not.

As opposed to the Zambian system were a judge or judges hear a case and find a person guilty or not, in America the jury does the job.

"The jury system is a unique process. It is a hallmark of our society. It has helped us avoid having violence and protests in society."

Judge Rumsey says the jury helps because it is composed of people from the community who know the people accused or the institutions and can give an objective decision on a particular case.

He says once the jury decides whether the accused is guilty or not, they are not obliged to explain why they arrived at the verdict.

When asked whether members of the jury can be in danger of reprisals if they arrived at a guilty verdict for a member of society, Judge Rumsey said jurors are generally safe.

"We advise the jurors not to disclose how they arrived at the verdict though they are free to do so. But usually they do not. But if we learn that a juror maybe in danger, we can then ask law enforcement to protect them," said Judge Rumsey.

South African fellow Luyolo Mpithi taking a selfie in court
He also said the jurors are expected to base their decision on information given in court and not research on social media.

Judge Rumsey was first elected as Supreme Court justice in in 1993 and was re-elected for a second 14 year term in 2007.

However, judges at the state appellate level are appointed by the Governor while those of the US Supreme Court are appointed by the US President.

Judges are not the only ones who are elected to work in public offices in the US.

Sheriffs, who enforce court orders and civil law in a county, also go through public elections despite being uniformed officers.

Now this is people power and democracy at its best: electing judges and Sheriffs.

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