I have a confession.
I hate jury duty. In fact, I have always gotten out of it when called, always finding good excuses. I would go in prepared to use my position as a small business owner…or a newspaper publisher…whatever it took to get out of serving. So as I walked up to the Riverside Courthouse to report for jury duty last week, I started silently rehearsing my excuse as I stood in line. Then practiced even more as I waited in the jury room with hundreds of other would-be jurors.
So by the time my group was called and escorted over to the historic courthouse for possible selection on a civil trial, I was prepared to present all the reasons I couldn’t serve. That’s when I thought of you and what motivates me to write these weekly missives on good citizenship, on democracy, and on justice. How can I preach civic responsibility when it comes to voting but relinquish jury service, such an important duty of the right that is guaranteed to all citizens by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the right to be judged by our peers?
But I still needed some convincing. I admit I experienced a bit of anxiety when I learned the trial could last a week. I still wasn’t quite sure I was ready to commit. I was given the opportunity to step out of the courtroom and check my calendar, so I called my husband. The trial could last longer, I opined. You should do it, he said without hesitation. With my heart beating fast I returned to the judge and presented myself for service.
After being designated Juror #2 – I spoke to a number of people about jury duty…friends, family, random folks I encountered during the course of the week. Of course I couldn’t talk about the trial, but when I mentioned I was serving as a juror most people winced first and then gave me that look of apology. Or asked the question, “don’t you know how to get out of it?”
During the closing arguments of the trial both attorneys referred to the U.S. Constitution as the foundation of our democracy and the jury trial, our cornerstone. French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville viewed the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers as a vital part of our democratic tradition. In his 1831 work Democracy in America, he suggests that serving on a jury educates citizens on justice and democracy and “teaches us to practice equity” by learning to judge our neighbors as we would be judged.
“By obliging men to turn their attention to affairs which are not exclusively their own, it rubs off that individual egotism which is the rust of society,” he wrote. “Thus the jury, which is the most energetic means of making the people rule, is also the most efficacious means of teaching it to rule well.”
Yes, for generations African-Americans were excluded from this important part of our process. And it wasn’t until 1975 that a woman’s ability to serve on a jury on equal terms with men was finally secured. But we no longer have those types of exclusions. Yet some of us complain about the justice system being unfair and refuse to do our part.
As de Tocqueville reminds us, a jury trial “places the real direction of society in the hands of the governed, or of a portion of the governed, and not in that of the government.” More of us need to be a part of that portion…or stop complaining about the injustices taking place in our society while doing everything we can to not participate in the governance of the same.