This evening I found myself thinking about jury duty, an almost universally reviled reality of American life. Around here, you find out you’ve got jury duty when a colored postcard shows up in your mailbox. It tells you that in two weeks you will be required to take the day off, and show up at your local courthouse where you might be chosen to figure out whether somebody’s committed a truly disturbing crime or — possibly even worse — you find out you’re going to be spending the next six weeks deciding whether Company A did some obscure and financially complex wrong to Company B. Without question, both sides will be represented by lawyers whose hair and skin color are identical and who speak in a monotone worse than that of Mr. Bailey, your high school history teacher. It is not a pleasant duty.
Very few people know that the right to have real people — impartial people — decide whether or not you are guilty of a crime is guaranteed under the United States Constitution. It is also the only mandatory civic duty all Americans are asked to perform, unless you count grilling meat on the 4th of July. Although American juries sometimes do outrageous things (could McDonald’s really be responsible for the injuries people sustain when they spill hot coffee they’ve decided to balance between their legs while driving?), they mostly — in my experience — figure out the true and just result. For some reason, groups of twelve strangers are just really good at knowing what’s right, especially when they’re in a courtroom and instructed carefully to do that by a serious looking woman or man in a black robe. And if they have Gregory Peck on the jury, there’s no looking back.
The people who wrote the constitution knew how smart ordinary people are and also knew that it’s a good idea to put the power to decide guilt and innocence in the hands of the people, rather than judges.
For some, especially those who are self-employed, extended jury service is a huge financial burden. For others, it’s a huge, inconvenient pain in the neck. But it is also part of living in a democracy, which is a privilege for which we are ordinarily asked to make no sacrifices. I don’t think most potential jurors realize, when they resist jury service, that the orange postcard they’re holding in their hand represents the only sacrifice they will ever be asked to make in order to sustain democracy. Most people are unaware that citizenship is more than simply a matter of paying your taxes and obeying the law and are outraged to learn that they might be expected to do more than that. And that is because we don’t live in a culture where sacrifice has anything to do with being an American.
In the end, I think it’s a mistake that we ask so little of ourselves to ensure that our democracy is healthy and functional that something like jury duty could cause so much irritation and outrage. Not asking more from all of us is a mistake that weakens us as a people and weakens the system we benefit from. That’s because people who make sacrifices for a larger goal — whether it’s jury duty or serving in the military — are much more invested in the outcome and in the system than those who don’t. For example, if every one of us had to serve in the military, the conversation leading up to the war in Iraq would have been a lot different than it was. Americans don’t like to be told what to do, that’s for sure. But it’s a shame that in preserving our right to be left alone, we might also have left our system alone and vulnerable to people who really don’t have our interests at heart, like the people in the current administration.
Thinking like this makes me feel like an old coot, truth be told. Still, I do think it’s good sometimes to think about the constitution and democracy, and what our responsibilities are to those institutions. If we all stopped doing that, someday we might wake up and find out they’ve disappeared. So next time you get an orange postcard, do your best to pay attention to it and give it the respect it deserves. It’s your chance to keep the ink on the constitution from fading away.