Last week at Comic-Con a trailer was released for a new Dredd movie, unfortunately unrelated to Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 Judge Dredd movie that sees him convicted of murder based on DNA evidence (directed by Danny Cannon, who also got the honor of directing “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer”).
In this new release, Dredd continues to be judge, jury, and executioner rolled into one, and this time he’s training a rookie judge with psychic abilities. The idea of psychics or truthtellers – individuals able to tell who’s guilty/innocent or telling the truth/lying – is a fun one to play with in the legal context (such as the psychics in Minority Report or the truthtellers in the Dune series) and one I’ll have to discuss in another blog post.
This post, however, is dedicated to the idea of judge and jury being combined into one individual. It’s significant that Judge Dredd is a British creation, where the right to a jury trial was included in the Magna Carta in 1215. While the English legal system traveled to the American colonies, the British government didn’t always allow jury trials in the colonies. That meant that the colonial judges, whose job security depended on the King, were often seen as biased. Being deprived of jury trials was listed in the Declaration of Independence as one of the complaints levied at the King, right after taxation without consent. The right to a jury trial was then enshrined in the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton called this right “the very palladium of free government.”
In the comic strip and movies, Judge Dredd’s entire face is never shown. While this began as an unofficial guideline, it soon became a rule because “It sums up the facelessness of justice − justice has no soul.” Contrast that idea of a faceless, soulless judge with our legal system’s view of the jury’s role, which has been described by the Supreme Court as a “guard against the exercise of arbitrary power.” Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522, 530 (1975). Juries can also enforce community standards, legitimize laws, and practice jury nullification (in which a jury refuses to convict a guilty defendant because it believes the law to be unfair either generally or in a particular case, such as when jurors refused to find people guilty for assisting slaves to escape their owners).
Of course, juries aren’t perfect. Jury decisions can often be very unpredictable and biases (such as racism and sexism) can intrude. Evidentiary issues are also heightened in jury trials. A friend of mine in law school was an Israeli prosecutor (Israel is noted for not having juries of any kind despite having a legal system based largely on the British legal system), and she often mocked the time we spend on evidentiary issues because of our concern that the probative value of evidence not be outweighed by any prejudice it would cause to a jury.
Nevertheless, juries – even with their flaws – continue to exist to counter the faceless, arbitrary, government-controlled justice represented by Judge Dredd. And Judge Dredd is apparently only equipped to handle criminal cases. It would be entertaining but difficult to picture Judge Dredd acting as instant judge and jury in a patent infringement or breach of contract case. And imagine Judge Dredd trying to sift through millions of bytes of electronic discovery (I think I’ve got the plot for the next Dredd movie).
Of course, the idea of a Judge Dredd — a one-stop shop for all things justice — is appealing when you’re dealing with a bleak future where criminals run rampant and fashion choices are bizarre (plus, what lawyer doesn’t want to yell “I am the Law!” at some point in their career?). But, as is often the case in the legal system, the most efficient solution isn’t the most effective solution. If it were my butt on the line, I’d ask that my justice be deliberate and taken out of the hands of just one person. Mistakes happen all the time, even with pyschics and lie detector tests (just ask Tom Cruise or George Costanza), so I don’t want a judge – I want a jury there to take into account extra-legal considerations and, just in case, I’d like some time for review before I meet my executioner. Just ask Stallone – turns out even Judge Dredd’s system wasn’t perfect!