By Robert A. Vella
Nullification is a term used in American political nomenclature to identify the constitutionally-invalid proposition that states can ignore federal laws they disagree with. This notion became a popular rallying point in the Antebellum South when plantation owners fought to preserve the institution of slavery. It was also used to justify the infamous Jim Crow laws which sprang-up in the former Confederate states after the U.S. Civil War. Even today, the idea of nullification is being championed by the Tea Party in an effort to legitimize its radical anti-government agenda.
But, there is a perfectly legal way of nullifying federal, state, and local laws very few Americans know about because the U.S. judicial system is deliberately concealing it. From Wikipedia:
Jury nullification occurs in a trial when a jury acquits a defendant, even though the members of the jury believe the defendant to be guilty of the charges. This may occur when members of the jury disagree with the law the defendant has been charged with breaking, or believe that the law should not be applied in that particular case. A jury can similarly convict a defendant on the ground of disagreement with an existing law, even if no law is broken (although in jurisdictions with double jeopardy rules, a conviction can be overturned on appeal, but an acquittal cannot).
A jury verdict contrary to the letter of the law pertains only to the particular case before it. If a pattern of acquittals develops, however, in response to repeated attempts to prosecute a statutory offence, this can have the de facto effect of invalidating the statute. A pattern of jury nullification may indicate public opposition to an unwanted legislative enactment.
In the past, it was feared that a single judge or panel of government officials may be unduly influenced to follow established legal practice, even when that practice had drifted from its origins. In most modern Western legal systems, however, juries are often instructed to serve only as “finders of facts“, whose role it is to determine the veracity of the evidence presented, and the weight accorded to the evidence, to apply that evidence to the law and reach a verdict, but not to decide what the law is. Similarly, juries are routinely cautioned by courts and some attorneys not to allow sympathy for a party or other affected persons to compromise the fair and dispassionate evaluation of evidence during the guilt phase of a trial. These instructions are criticized by advocates of jury nullification. Some commonly cited historical examples of jury nullification involve the refusal of American colonial juries to convict a defendant under English law.
Juries have also refused to convict due to the perceived injustice of a law in general, or the perceived injustice of the way the law is applied in particular cases. There have also been cases where the juries have refused to convict due to their own prejudices such as the race of one of the parties in the case.
Obviously, general application of this legal concept would open up a gigantic can-of-worms in jury trials, and that is certainly the reason why it is being kept under wraps. Prosecutors would be forced to dismiss prospective jurors who understood and believed in its validity. That could pose enormous logistical problems for court proceedings.
Jury nullification does, however, offer intriguing prospects for mitigating patently unjust laws such as Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground statute which enabled the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. How this could be employed without allowing egregious abuses, such as acquittals based solely on race, remains completely unresolved. If a workable solution could be found, jury nullification might prove to be an effective tool in combating the gross inequality now pervading the American system of justice.
Further reading: Nullification: Jurors’ Secret Weapon Against Harsh Sentencing