Last night I heard Rachel Maddow discussing the difference between grand and petit juries. (Psst, Rachel! )It’s pronounced petty.) I’ve posted on this before, but now is a good time for a refresher.

Grand juries, also called presenting juries, date back to 1166, when King Henry II made a variety of changes to England’s judicial system. Among other things, he appointed judges who would ride around–ride circuit–from town to town, hearing cases. When a judge arrived in a particular town, a panel of local bigwigs would present to him all the cases that had accumulated sine the last trials.

Nowadays, grand juries may be chosen in a variety of ways, depending on jurisdiction. Their size differs too, although it’s often more than 12 jurors. Their job in criminal cases is to determine whether enough evidence exists to proceed with the prosecution. In this way, they are said to act as shields against unjust charges. But they also act as swords because they can investigate, call witnesses, and subpoena evidence.

Grand juries are required in federal cases and in some–but not most–states. They don’t decide guilt, but rather whether there’s enough evidence to go to trial.

Petit juries are called that because they’re smaller–usually (although not always) 12 members. Again, their roots lie in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1215, the Catholic church decided that it would no longer try English defendants by ordeal (e.g., making them carry hot irons or put their hands in boiling water). This means England needed a new way to determine guilt. Since everyone in England was already used to presenting juries, it was relatively easy to give juries the new task of deciding whether defendants were guilty. The judge acted as a sort of referee, but in the end, the jury determined the facts of the case.

In the US, any defendant who’s facing at least 6 month incarceration has the right to ask for a jury trial.

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