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July 01, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, July 01, 2005

Judged by a panel of one's peers Judged by a panel of one's peers (July 01, 2005)

Student wins essay contest with airtight case supporting trial by jury

by Rebecca Guyon

Jury duty. No one can avoid it and most people just accept that the jury system is one of those democratic drawbacks that makes living in a dictatorship sound mighty nice some days. Perhaps that's why the American Bar Association posed the question, "Do you think that the 'right to trial by jury' still makes sense in America today?" for their essay contest held in conjunction with Law Day, an annual event on May 1. Of course the question was posed to middle school students who have yet to serve jury duty, but regardless, Harvest Park eighth grader Amelia Black won first place in the contest for her essay outlining why the jury system is still important and valuable in our society.

"I thought it was an interesting topic, and one you don't usually hear discussed, especially in the middle school grades," Amelia said.

That is exactly why the ABA targets middle school students for the essay contest, said Charlotte Salomon, a board member of the Eastern Alameda County Bar Association who chairs the contest. For the past five years, the ABA has organized the contest by determining the essay topic and the EACBA implements it in the region. Across the country, other regions hold different events such as courthouse tours and symposiums on the year's topic.

"We reach out to our middle school students because we think that is so important and it's never too early for our students to understand what makes the American system unique," Salomon said. "It really gives them a chance to stretch their minds."

When Amelia first heard of the contest she was intrigued by the topic, but didn't know much about the debates surrounding the jury system. To understand the topic more, she conducted extensive research on all the different viewpoints before coming to her conclusion.

"After I did my research, (trial by jury) just made sense to me, so I decided to talk about why it is important and it's role in the Constitution," Amelia said.

Salomon said that while they received 140 essays, many of which were very good, it was Amelia's focus on the power of the jury system that set her essay above the rest.

"Her essay was an advocacy piece that said, 'this is why we have this system, and while it's not perfect, it really protects the freedoms of every American citizen,'" Salomon said.

Amelia was so persuasive and passionate in her essay that Alameda County Superior Court Judge Alicia Vilardi, who is a big supporter of Law Day, shared the essay with her colleagues on the bench. Since then, several of these judges have read Amelia's essay to juries in Alameda County as an orientation to the system.

"There was a sophistication of her understanding in the role that juries play in a democracy," Vilardi said. "I think most of the judges who read the essay appreciate her comprehension and ability to express it in plain English."

Although this was the first time Amelia entered an essay contest, she has had an interest in law for quite some time and enjoys reading and learning history. She hopes to continue studying the law through her courses at Amador Valley High School where she will start as a ninth grader this year. Given all her consideration of American law, one has to ask, when Amelia is old enough to get her own jury summons, will she take her civic duty seriously?

"I'd like to think so," she said. "It'd be interesting for me and I could make a good juror. I would definitely try to be impartial."
Why do we even need juries?

"I believe that a trial by jury is, as the Framers of the Constitution believed, a right that still applies today. Even though many are reluctant to serve, I think it is still the best way to go about trials. It is a concept that was well thought through and planned out, and it does protect us as a nation." - Amelia Black

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