Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION IV.: The Right of Juries to fix the Sentence. - An Essay on the Trial by Jury
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SECTION IV.: The Right of Juries to fix the Sentence. - Lysander Spooner, An Essay on the Trial by Jury 
An Essay on the Trial by Jury (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1852).
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The Right of Juries to fix the Sentence.
The nature of the common law courts existing prior to Magna Carta, such as the county courts, the hundred courts, the court-leet, and the court-baron, all prove, what has already been proved from Magna Carta, that, in jury trials, the juries fixed the sentence; because, in those courts, there was no one but the jury who could fix it, unless it were the sheriff, bailiff, or steward; and no one will pretend that it was fixed by them. The juries unquestionably gave the “judgment” in both civil and criminal cases.
That the juries were to fix the sentence under Magna Carta, is also shown by statutes subsequent to Magna Carta.
A statute passed fifty-one years after Magna Carta, says that a baker, for default in the weight of his bread, “debeat amerciari vel subire judicium pilloræ,”—that is, “ought to be amerced, or suffer the sentence of the pillory.” And that a brewer, for “selling ale, contrary to the assize,” “debeat amerciari, vel pati judicium tumbrelli;” that is, “ought to be amerced, or suffer judgment of the tumbrel.”—51 Henry III., st. 6. (1266.)
If the king (the legislative power) had had authority to fix the punishments of these offences imperatively, he would naturally have said these offenders shall be amerced, and shall suffer judgment of the pillory and tumbrel, instead of thus simply expressing the opinion that they ought to be punished in that manner.
The statute of Westminster, passed sixty years after Magna Carta, provides that,
“No city, borough, nor town, nor any man, be amerced, without reasonable cause, and according to the quantity of the trespass; that is to say, every freeman saving his freehold, a merchant saving his merchandise, a villein his waynage, and that by his or their peers.”
—3 Edward I., ch. 6. (1275.)
The same statute (ch. 18) provides further, that,
“Forasmuch as the common fine and amercement of the whole county in Eyre of the justices for false judgments, or for other trespass, is unjustly assessed by sheriffs and baretors in the shires, so that the sum is many times increased, and the parcels otherwise assessed than they ought to be, to the damage of the people, which be many times paid to the sheriffs and baretors, which do not acquit the payers; it is provided, and the king wills, that from henceforth such sums shall be assessed before the justices in Eyre, afore their departure, by the oath of knights and other honest men, upon all such as ought to pay; and the justices shall cause the parcels to be put into their estreats, which shall be delivered up unto the exchequer, and not the whole sum.”
—St. 3 Edward I., ch. 18, (1275.)*
The following statute, passed in 1341, one hundred and twenty-five years after Magna Carta, providing for the trial of peers of the realm, and the king’s ministers, contains a recognition of the principle of Magna Carta, that the jury are to fix the sentence.
“Whereas before this time the peers of the land have been arrested and imprisoned, and their temporalities, lands, and tenements, goods and cattels, asseized in the king’s hands, and some put to death without judgment of their peers: It is accorded and assented, that no peer of the land, officer, nor other, because of his office, nor of things touching his office, nor by other cause, shall be brought in judgment to lose his temporalities, lands, tenements, goods and cattels, nor to be arrested, nor imprisoned, outlawed, exiled, nor forejudged, nor put to answer, nor be judged, but by award (sentence) of the said peers in Parliament.”
—15 Edward III., st. 1, sec. 2.
Section 4, of the same statute provides,
“That in every Parliament, at the third day of every Parliament, the king shall take in his hands the offices of all the ministers aforesaid,” (that is, “the chancellor, treasurer, barons, and chancellor of the exchequer, the justices of the one bench and of the other, justices assigned in the country, steward and chamberlain of the king’s house, keeper of the privy seal, treasurer of the wardrobe, controllers, and they that be chief deputed to abide nigh the king’s son, Duke of Cornwall,”) “and so they shall abide four or five days; except the offices of justices of the one place or the other, justices assigned, barons of exchequer; so always that they and all other ministers be put to answer to every complaint; and if default be found in any of the said ministers, by complaint or other manner, and of that attainted in Parliament, he shall be punished by judgment of the peers, and put out of his office, and another convenient put in his place. And upon the same our said sovereign lord the king shall do (cause) to be pronounced and made execution without delay, according to the judgment (sentence) of the said peers in the Parliament.”
Here is an admission that the peers were to fix the sentence, or judgment, and the king promises to make execution “according to” that sentence.
And this appears to be the law, under which peers of the realm and the great officers of the crown were tried and sentenced, for four hundred years after its passage, and, for aught I know, until this day.
The first case given in Hargrave’s collection of English State Trials, is that of Alexander Nevil, Archbishop of York, Robert Vere, Duke of Ireland, Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and Robert Tresilian, Lord Chief Justice of England, with several others, convicted of treason, before “the Lords of Parliament,” in 1388. The sentences in these cases were adjudged by the “Lords of Parliament,” in the following terms, as they are reported.
“Wherefore the said Lords of Parliament, there present, as judges in Parliament, in this case, by assent of the king, pronounced their sentence, and did adjudge the said archbishop, duke, and earl, with Robert Tresilian, so appealed, as aforesaid, to be guilty, and convicted of treason, and to be drawn and hanged, as traitors and enemies to the king and kingdom; and that their heirs should be disinherited forever, and their lands and tenements, goods and chattels, forfeited to the king, and that the temporalities of the Archbishop of York should be taken into the king’s hands.”
Also, in the same case, Sir John Holt, Sir William Burgh, Sir John Cary, Sir Roger Fulthorpe, and John Locton, “were by the lords temporal, by the assent of the king, adjudged to be drawn and hanged, as traitors, their heirs disinherited, and their lands and tenements, goods and chattels, to be forfeited to the king.”
Also, in the same case, John Blake, “of council for the king,” and Thomas Uske, under sheriff of Middlesex, having been convicted of treason,
“The lords awarded, by assent of the king, that they should both be hanged and drawn as traitors, as open enemies to the king and kingdom, and their heirs disinherited forever, and their lands and tenements, goods and chattels, forfeited to the king.”
Also, “Simon Burleigh, the king’s chamberlain,” being convicted of treason, “by joint consent of the king and the lords, sentence was pronounced against the said Simon Burleigh, that he should be drawn from the town to Tyburn, and there be hanged till he be dead, and then have his head struck from his body.”
Also, “John Beauchamp, steward of the household to the king, James Beroverse, and John Salisbury, knights, gentlemen of the privy chamber, were in like manner condemned.”
—1 Hargrave’s State Trials, first case.
Here the sentences were all fixed by the peers, with the assent of the king. But that the king should be consulted, and his assent obtained to the sentence pronounced by the peers, does not imply any deficiency of power on their part to fix the sentence independently of the king. There are obvious reasons why they might choose to consult the king, and obtain his approbation of the sentence they were about to impose, without supposing any legal necessity for their so doing.
So far as we can gather from the reports of state trials, peers of the realm were usually sentenced by those who tried them, with the assent of the king. But in some instances no mention is made of the assent of the king, as in the case of “Lionel, Earl of Middlesex, Lord High Treasurer of England,” in 1624, (four hundred years after Magna Carta,) where the sentence was as follows:
“This High Court of Parliament doth adjudge, that Lionel, Earl of Middlesex, now Lord Treasurer of England, shall lose all his offices which he holds in this kingdom, and shall, hereafter, be made incapable of any office, place, or employment in the state and commonwealth. That he shall be imprisoned in the tower of London, during the king’s pleasure. That he shall pay unto our sovereign lord the king a fine of 50,000 pounds. That he shall never sit in Parliament any more, and that he shall never come within the verge of the court.”
—2 Howell’s State Trials, 1250.
Here was a peer of the realm, and a minister of the king, of the highest grade; and if it were ever necessary to obtain the assent of the king to sentences pronounced by the peers, it would unquestionably have been obtained in this instance, and his assent would have appeared in the sentence.
Lord Bacon was sentenced by the House of Lords, (1620,) no mention being made of the assent of the king. The sentence is in these words:
“And, therefore, this High Court doth adjudge, That the Lord Viscount St. Albans, Lord Chancellor of England, shall undergo fine and ransom of 40,000 pounds. That he shall be imprisoned in the tower during the king’s pleasure. That he shall forever be incapable of any office, place, or employment in the state or commonwealth. That he shall never sit in Parliament, nor come within the verge of the court.”
And when it was demanded of him, before sentence, whether it were his hand that was subscribed to his confession, and whether he would stand to it; he made the following answer, which implies that the lords were the ones to determine his sentence.
“My lords, it is my act, my hand, my heart. I beseech your lordships to be merciful to a broken reed.”
—1 Hargrave’s State Trials, 386-7.
The sentence against Charles the First, (1648,) after reciting the grounds of his condemnation, concludes in this form:
“For all which treasons and crimes, this court doth adjudge, that he, the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of this nation, shall be put to death by the severing his head from his body.”
The report then adds:
“This sentence being read, the president (of the court) spake as followeth: ‘This sentence now read and published, is the act, sentence, judgment and resolution of the whole court.’ ”
—1 Hargrave’s State Trials, 1037.
Unless it had been the received “law of the land” that those who tried a man should fix his sentence, it would have required an act of Parliament to fix the sentence of Charles, and his sentence would have been declared to be “the sentence of the law,” instead of “the act, sentence, judgment, and resolution of the court.”
But the report of the proceedings in “the trial of Thomas, Earl of Macclesfield, Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, before the House of Lords, for high crimes and misdemeanors in the execution of his office,” in 1725, is so full on this point, and shows so clearly that it rested wholly with the lords to fix the sentence, and that the assent of the king was wholly unnecessary, that I give the report somewhat at length.
After being found guilty, the earl addressed the lords, for a mitigation of sentence, as follows:
“ ‘I am now to expect your lordships’ judgment; and I hope that you will be pleased to consider that I have suffered no small matter already in the trial, in the expense I have been at, the fatigue, and what I have suffered otherways. * * I have paid back 10,800 pounds of the money already; I have lost my office; I have undergone the censure of both houses of Parliament, which is in itself a severe punishment,’ ” &c., &c.
On being interrupted, he proceeded:
“ ‘My lords, I submit whether this be not proper in mitigation of your lordships’ sentence; but whether it be or not, I leave myself to your lordships’ justice and mercy; I am sure neither of them will be wanting, and I entirely submit.’ * *
“Then the said earl, as also the managers, were directed to withdraw; and the House (of Lords) ordered Thomas, Earl of Macclesfield, to be committed to the custody of the gentleman usher of the black rod; and then proceeded to the consideration of what judgment,” (that is, sentence, for he had already been found guilty,) “to give upon the impeachment against the said earl.” * *
“The next day, the Commons, with their speaker, being present at the bar of the House (of Lords), * * the speaker of the House of Commons said as follows:
“ ‘My Lords, the knights, citizens, and burgesses in Parliament assembled, in the name of themselves, and of all the commons of Great Britain, did at this bar impeach Thomas, Earl of Macclesfield, of high crimes and misdemeanors, and did exhibit articles of impeachment against him, and have made good their charge. I do, therefore, in the name of the knights, citizens, and burgesses, in Parliament assembled, and of all the commons of Great Britain, demand judgment (sentence) of your lordships against Thomas, Earl of Macclesfield, for the said high crimes and misdemeanors.’
“Then the Lord Chief Justice King, Speaker of the House of Lords, said: ‘Mr. Speaker, the Lords are now ready to proceed to judgment in the case by you mentioned.
“ ‘Thomas, Earl of Macclesfield, the Lords have unanimously found you guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, charged on you by the impeachment of the House of Commons, and do now, according to law, proceed to judgment against you, which I am ordered to pronounce. Their lordships’ judgment is, and this high court doth adjudge, that you, Thomas, Earl of Macclesfield, be fined in the sum of thirty thousand pounds unto our sovereign lord the king; and that you shall be imprisoned in the tower of London, and there kept in safe custody, until you shall pay the said fine.’ ”
—6 Hargrave’s State Trials, 762-3-4.
This case shows that the principle of Magna Carta, that a man should be sentenced only by his peers, was in force, and acted upon as law, in England, so lately as 1725, (five hundred years after Magna Carta,) so far as it applied to a peer of the realm.
But the same principle, on this point, that applies to a peer of the realm, applies to every freeman. The only difference between the two is, that the peers of the realm have had influence enough to preserve their constitutional rights; while the constitutional rights of the people have been trampled upon and rendered obsolete by the usurpation and corruption of the government and the courts.
[* ]Coke, as late as 1588, admits that amercements must be fixed by the peers (8 Coke’s Rep. 38, 2 Inst. 27); but he attempts, wholly without success, as it seems to me, to show a difference between fines and amercements. The statutes are very numerous, running through the three or four hundred years immediately succeeding Magna Carta, in which fines, ransoms, and amercements are spoken of as if they were the common punishments of offences, and as if they all meant the same thing. If, however, any technical difference could be made out between them, there is clearly none in principle; and the word amercement, as used in Magna Carta, must be taken in its most comprehensive sense.