(Editor's note: A feature article on jury nullification -- "'A Law Unto Themselves': Jury Nullification and the Deck Stacked Against It" -- can be found here.)
With the resurgence of the ideals of free markets and individual liberty throughout the world, an English and American common-law tradition is being resurrected in the United States that has profound implications for emerging democracies. This idea, incorporated into the constitutions of nations, can provide a lasting barrier against the assumption of arbitrary power by government.
The founders of the United States were worried that the government might someday grow too powerful, and pass laws that would violate the rights of the very people the government was created to protect: ordinary, peaceful citizens. They knew there was one institution that might hold the government in check: the right to a trial by a jury of one's peers.
How can a jury protect people from arbitrary and unjust prosecution, or from bad laws? The legislature creates laws. Aren't citizens supposed to obey them, and lobby their legislators for any changes that need to be made?
Traditionally, U.S. citizens have had a more substantial and direct means by which to protect themselves from oppressive laws. The founders of the United States realized that the temptations of power were too great to leave it to the legislature, executive, and judicial branches of government to define citizens' rights. Ultimately, citizens acting in accordance with the dictates of individual conscience were to have final say. The people would have a veto power over bad laws.