Accused of tainting a pool of potential jurists, Colorado Springs landlord and state Senate candidate Douglas Bruce was dismissed from jury duty this week after he distributed a stack of leaflets claiming that jurists need only follow their conscience -- and not the law -- when deciding a case.
At least one potential juror -- who spent several hours going through the courthouse orientation process before he was sent home -- did not appreciate the interruption.
"I was absolutely furious," said Colorado Springs resident Matt Barton. "It was a waste of my time and Doug Bruce assumes I'm not intelligent to make my own decision as far as the law. He feels it's up to him to come in and disrupt what should have been a normal process."
Barton said Bruce handed the leaflets out to about 150 potential jurors who had been summoned. Of them, Barton and about 50 others were dismissed on Tuesday after lawyers complained their views had potentially been contaminated by Bruce's literature.
The leaflets were prepared by a group called the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA), whose literature claims juries have "final veto power over all acts of the legislature that may come to be called laws." Called jury nullification, the concept is that jurors can find defendants not guilty if they don't agree with the law they are accused of breaking.
Bruce, an anti-tax activist, authored Colorado's 1992 Taxpayers Bill of Rights, enacting tax and spending limitations. A onetime prosecutor with the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, Bruce has not previously publicly weighed in on the issue of jury nullification.
Bruce is currently running a tough race for the Colorado senate against state Rep. Ron May. If he had been selected for jury duty, he could have spent several crucial weeks of his campaign empanelled in a courtroom.
Bruce could not be reached for comment as of press time, however, Barton said other jurors were angry at the disruption as well.
"I don't think anyone was happy having Doug Bruce decide whether we were competent jurors or not," he said.
Court administrator Victoria Villalobos said the action -- dismissing jurors because their judgment was potentially contaminated -- is highly unusual. In her 16 years on the job, she said, she has never witnessed a similar incident.
District Judge Thomas L. Kennedy said the jury pool was dismissed after a defense lawyer in a first-degree sexual assault trial scheduled to begin Tuesday complained.
When Kennedy learned that Bruce was distributing the pamphlets, he asked him to cease. However, he said, Bruce had already handed them out to the entire jury pool.
"It wasn't confrontational at all," Kennedy said. "[Bruce] has a free speech right to hand out the leaflets, whether we tell him he can or can't do that. I just asked him not to hand out the leaflets, but it was already over."
The judge then advised the attorneys for both sides of the disruption, and, after the defense lawyer objected, the entire panel was dismissed, causing a two-week delay in the sexual assault trial, and a ripple effect among other scheduled trials, Kennedy said.
The judge could not estimate the cost to taxpayers of the delays, including having to contact a new pool of jurors.
Kennedy said he finds the debate over jury nullification fascinating, but said the courtroom is the wrong place to debate it.
"[Jury nullification is] an interesting topic and there certainly is a time and place to discuss it, but to inject it into everyday court life made it an incredible hardship for jurors -- and for the people who wanted to get their day in court," he said.
"It was the issue in the manner in which he did this. We don't debate the law in the courtroom -- that's done in the legislature," the judge said. "We apply the laws as written -- that's the oath I've taken and asked jurors to take."
Pot vs. violent crime
In recent years, the concept that juries have the right to decide whether a law is unjust or tyrannical has been promoted by the FIJA and other groups. FIJA activists cite the basis of the Common Law Jury that was established in the 13th century as the basis for our current justice system.
"Because a jury's guilty decision must be unanimous, it takes only one vote to effectively nullify a bad act of the legislature," FIJA's literature states. "Your one vote can hang a jury, and although it won't be an acquittal, at least the defendant will not be convicted of violating an unjust or unconstitutional law. The government cannot deprive anyone of liberty without your consent."
The argument has mostly been used in cases where jurors have questioned the legality of drug laws. One of the highest profile jury nullification laws involved a Gilpin County, Colorado woman, Laura Kriho, who as a juror argued the legality of marijuana laws and eventually was jailed for contempt of court.
Kennedy said he has never heard jurors similarly argue against laws against sexual assault, as was the case that was to be heard in his courtroom on Tuesday.
"I have had on occasion in a drug prosecution a juror who believes the marijuana laws are unjust and the person says [they] cannot apply the law, and they would be excused from jury duty," Kennedy said. "But when you look at it in context, most jurists agree we need laws for violent crime."