American History13 Feb 2008 04:55 pm
The trial of John Peter Zenger remains the most famous case in American history of “jury nullification”: Zenger was clearly guilty of the laws he was accused of violating, but the jury found those laws unjust and set him free. This act was one of the opening salvos in the ongoing battle for freedom of the press. But journalists aren’t the only people in American society who have benefited from jury nullification: every barkeep in the land owes a comped drink to the brave and principled souls of the 20′s and 30′s who nullified the preposterous Prohibitions against alcoholic beverages.
American laws have often erred in the direction of telling people how to best take care of themselves, and many continue to err in that direction today, but never has this tendency been given wider reign than in the era of Prohibition. To review: in 1919, the United States ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of “liquors,” and passed the Volstead Act, which stated that “no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act.” This bit of legislative lunacy remained on the books for over a decade, giving rise to bootleggers and all the crime associated with them. The amendment and the law were finally put to rest in 1933. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it after signing the Cullen-Harrison Act, which amended the Volstead Act to death, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”
Along with crime and a horrible precedent for American law, Prohibition also gave rise to a contempt for law that hadn’t been seen since the days of the Boston Tea Party, a contempt that often took the form of jury nullifications: over half of American jurors just couldn’t bring themselves to prosecute anyone for having or serving a drink. This was a major contributing factor in the repeal of Prohibition; after a time, the government couldn’t continue to lose credibility with a law its citizenry refused to enforce. Power to the people, says The Devoted Intellectual, and bottoms up!
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