Two decades after publishing Judging the Jury, Professor Valerie Hans received a surprise phone call from the U.S. Department of State: Would she like to advise the government of Argentina about how jury systems work? Ten years and many thousands of miles later, she's about to carry out the first comprehensive empirical legal research on juries in Latin America, beginning in the western province of Neuquén, where trial by jury is barely one year old.
"Studying American juries, I research a system of fact-finding and decision-making that's been around for centuries," says Hans, who signed a research agreement with the Neuquén Superior Court of Justice in December. "We have all these rules organized around what juries can and can't hear, and from a very young age, we grow up with the idea that someday we'll be judging other people's guilt or innocence as jurors. In Argentina, that hasn't been the case, which makes this a wonderful opportunity to study how lay people make a difference in a legal system."
As Hans begins her research in Neuquén, some parts of the system will look familiar; some won't. There are twelve jurors in the province's Superior Court, but no need for a unanimous verdict. By law, juries are half-male and half-female; in cases addressing indigenous issues, juries are half-indigenous and half non-indigenous. Along with the public prosecutor, there's often a second attorney at trial to represent the victims, and in the biggest shift for the legal profession, lawyers will need to reshape their arguments to persuade ordinary citizens, not a judge or a panel of judges.
Starting this month, Hans, her students, her U.S. collaborators, and her partners at the Argentine Institute for Comparative Studies in Criminal and Social Sciences-including board member Andrés Harfuch, who spent a semester as a visiting scholar at Cornell Law-will begin distributing questionnaires to juries, attorneys, and judges, and gathering data about their experience in the new courts. It may take years before Hans receives enough responses for a statistically significant sample, and along the way, she hopes to learn whether jury service can change how ordinary citizens approach participatory democracy: If people see the legal system in action, will their views toward government be more positive? Or less positive?
"I'm absolutely fascinated by the science of it, by the ability to study a new system in action," says Hans, who has also researched young jury systems in Japan, Korea, Russia, Spain, and Taiwan. "That's one of the most exciting things about this project: that this study can address questions we can't answer in a jury system that's been in place for a thousand-plus years. The other is that people in Argentina are so passionate about this change. There was a lot of discussion a decade ago, when corruption was rampant, about whether lay people could be introduced as a way to improve the justice system.
"We don't know what to expect," she continues. "I've studied juries all my professional life. To have an opportunity to witness a new system at birth, and perhaps help strengthen the system through our research findings, is incredible."