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Many are called

July 13, 2010

This morning I got up early–well, not much earlier than usual, but it involved an alarm clock–and reported to the courthouse for jury duty. Many are called but few are chosen and I was back home by 11:00 AM, free and clear until the next summons (in three years or so, they said). The worst part was having to use the alarm clock. Self-employed in a home office, I usually get away with sleeping until I wake up without external interference. It’s a luxury, I know–and one for which I pay dearly in other ways. So the alarm clock made me feel whiny. Coasting on my annual 4th of July boost of patriotism, though, I cheerfully got dressed and went to town, ready to do my part to keep the republic lurching along.

Parking was easy, the courthouse security screening line moved briskly, juror check-in was fast and efficient, and the seating in the jury assembly room was comfortable.  Things got started on time and we spent part of the morning listening to two different judges talk about how jury selection works, but mostly about how important it is for people to serve when summoned.Then we viewed a 20-minute video featuring clips of interviews with various judges and former jurors, reinforcing the message that we all need to serve when called. After a break, we were treated to more video footage of judges talking about….well, I couldn’t hear much of what they were saying, but I’d bet they were discussing how important it is for people to turn out for jury duty. Finally, a clerk called the names of several dozen folks and sent the rest of us home. Parking was free, and as civic participation goes, it was pretty painless.

One thing bothered me a lot, though: spending the morning listening to what amounted to a defense–and a not very compelling one, at that–of our jury trial system. It wasn’t surprising to hear the exhortations to step up and serve, given that it’s not only socially acceptable but almost de rigueur in some circles to wriggle out of jury duty if you can. But it was deeply disappointing that the point of departure for the big message was, “Yes, we know you have better things to do but we need you anyway.” In my opinion, nobody has anything better to do than serve on a jury when summoned (and vote when the opportunity arises). It may seem that other obligations are more important, and individual cases provide exceptions that prove the rule–there are times when it just isn’t feasible to stop the presses of daily life and appear. But in this country, under the system of government we purport to cherish, civic duty should trump most other things

I believe the speeches and videos at the courthouse need to be communicating why showing up for jury duty should be a no-brainer. How much more worthwhile could the morning have been if we had received a refresher micro-course in civics? (Leaving aside, for this post, the sad fact that for many it wouldn’t be a “refresher”–but then, that’s the problem, isn’t it?) Some vivid description of what it would mean to “regular people” if we didn’t have the right to trial by a jury of our peers.  A bit of history about how legal disputes and criminal allegations were resolved in pre-Revolutionary America, and how that led the founding fathers to formulate our Constitution as they did. Make the pragmatic case for jury duty as everyone’s responsibility, along with the philosophical case for it as a privilege that we should embrace.

Inconvenience is a small price to pay–a very, very small price–for the freedoms that we enjoy. We are all in this together, whether we like it or not, and jury duty is a chance to have a say in what happens next.

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