Home > News > Why Trump’s attacks on the NY jury are especially troubling 
106 views 8 min 0 Comment

Why Trump’s attacks on the NY jury are especially troubling 

The former president frequently denounces U.S. institutions that don’t agree with him. But this is different.

- June 4, 2024

A New York jury convicted former president Donald Trump on May 30 on 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up a sex scandal. Surprising no one, Trump impugned the 12 New York jurors from the start of jury selection. Even once bound by a gag order, preventing him from publicly discussing the jury, Trump repeatedly complained that the jurors were partisan. Trump even promoted a quote from a Fox News host that “They are catching undercover Liberal Activists lying to the Judge in order to get on the Trump Jury.” 

Last week’s conviction has not chastened Trump. He continues to insist that the trial was rigged – a claim that Republican party leaders seem happy to affirm.

Trump is attacking ordinary people: jurors

Trump’s attacks on institutions are nothing new, particularly when they seem to act against his interests. We’ve seen these attacks frequently when Trump can plausibly characterize institutions in any way as “elite.” But jury trials are different. The jury is composed of lay persons – everyday people, not legal experts. The judge lays out the laws in the case and it’s the responsibility of jurors to find facts. Of course judges could also serve as reliable finders of fact. Robust democracies, such as Germany, lack a jury system. 

Why, then, should we believe that “12 everyday New Yorkers,” in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s words, were able to offer Donald Trump a fair trial? 

The jurors’ ability to perform that function well is, perhaps surprisingly, tied to their residency. In this New York case, the critical point is that they are New Yorkers. 

The U.S. Constitution prescribes that trials by jury should take place in the “the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” The Supreme Court, however, has held that transfer to another location may happen where “extraordinary local prejudice” may prevent a fair trial. The vicinage requirement, that the location where the crime was committed determines where the trial should be held, dates to medieval England. This was important in part because these early juries were self-informing, and in fact relied on their own information as members of the community to render verdicts. A prospective juror today who had a personal relationship with the prosecution or defendant, or had private knowledge of the facts of the case, would be immediately struck for cause. 

Geography matters in U.S. law

Yet geography still matters. Take, for instance, the case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Black man killed by 41 bullets from four police officers in the Bronx. The 2000 trial of the four police officers shifted to Albany County, on the grounds that the officers allegedly could not receive a fair trial in the Bronx. The officers claimed they had acted in self-defense, but the reasonableness of their belief in an imminent threat could have depended in part on the reasonableness of their belief that patrols in that specific area were very dangerous. A Bronx juror, familiar with the area in question, might well have reached a different verdict than an Albany County juror who knew the Bronx only by reputation. 

What, then, of the everyday New Yorker in this case? Both for this trial in New York City and his upcoming trial in Washington, D.C., Trump sought a change of venue. Trump claimed he would be unable to receive a fair trial from a highly Democratic jury pool. Of course, Trump is a public figure about whom practically every prospective juror anywhere in the nation would have some prior view, whether positive or negative. Thanks to “geographic polarization,” it would be hard even to identify a venue where the jury pool might not be skewed ideologically. So the key question during jury selection is whether the jurors themselves believed they could render an impartial verdict, regardless of party, and whether there was any clear evidence (for instance, social media posts) to undermine their claim. 

Trump is not wrong on one point: The jury pool in Manhattan, as in Washington, certainly skews Democratic. But part of what gives us confidence in the jury’s ability to render just verdicts is that the jurors are the defendant’s neighbors. Trump, as many have observed, is the “consummate New Yorker.” 

Although as a former president on trial, Trump is in a way peerless, Manhattanites are – from a legal perspective – indeed his peers. At least in principle, the other New Yorkers share a certain sensibility, and knowledge of local norms and practices. This situated knowledge underlies their ability to serve as reliable fact-finders for questions about a neighbor’s conduct: in this context, whether Trump conducted himself in such a way that the jury could infer that he intended to falsify business records. 

Our faith in the jury process is important

In their opinions concerning jury “impeachment,” rules against jurors testifying about their deliberations, the Supreme Court has repeatedly invoked the importance of preserving community trust in a process that relies on lay persons. We never have access to the objective truth about the facts of the matter in any trial, and so our confidence that the verdict is right depends on our view that the jury process was just. 

To be sure, sometimes it does turn out that the procedure was flawed. When this happens, defendants may find grounds for appeal. But because our confidence in the criminal justice system depends, in a way, on our faith in the reliability of the jury as fact-finders, this confidence is in fact fragile. 

That is why characterizing the jury – 12 everyday New Yorkers – as just another locus of partisan capture is a particularly dangerous move. Again, it is an unsurprising move for a man who argued that supposed electoral fraud justified the “the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.” And it was little surprise that the Republican party continues to back Trump by denouncing the New York conviction. But these attacks on the jury are deeply troubling all the same.

Melissa Schwartzberg is Silver Professor of Politics at New York University and the co-author, with Jack Knight, of “Democratic Deals: A Defense of Political Bargaining” (Harvard University Press, 2024).