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.


18 thoughts on “Sacrifices

  1. Serendipitously, I’ve also just had a call for jury service, although here in England we get rather more notice and mine is for September – mind you, it is also for a compulsary fortnight.

    I feel just like you do about this. The responsibility of having to decide about someone’s innocence or guilt weighs very heavily on me, but if we want to manitain a democracy then this is something that has to be done.

    About half an hour ago I was talking to a friend about voting in local elections, or more to the point the aftermath of how few people do bother to vote. Locally we have some very ‘interesting’ council representatives. It might be that if more than 20% of the people who are able to vote actually did they would still be elected, but it might be that they wouldn’t and then some of the strange and rather one-sided decisions taken round here would be a thing of the past. I don’t think I would support making voting obligatory, but there are some points in its favour when it comes to taking an interest in the community.

  2. What a wonderful post! I’m one of those odd ducks who actually wants to perform jury duty but has never been requested to do so, yet. S. thinks I’m some how off the radar for all such things…for instance, neither my undergraduate or graduate programs ever request money from me, but all three of his schools constantly solicit us. At any rate, you are absolutely correct – jury duty is the *only* thing we are asked to do, and I can’t believe the amount of complaining that surrounds it.

  3. I love jury duty! Each time I do it I come out with visions of going to law school, visions which, thankfully, soon fade.

    One aspect of it which I used to not like though was trying to get an exemption when my children were very young and I was their sole caregiver. It seemed obvious to me that my “job” was one that I couldn’t take time away from; I had no extended family nearby and my husband’s employer could hardly be expected to give him weeks off for my jury duty. My children were traumatized by a few hours with a sitter, and I wouldn’t have known where to begin to find one available for as much time as I would need for jury duty. Anyway, sometimes it was easy to convince the courts of this, sometimes it wasn’t. For several years I was someone whose heart sank at the sight of the jury duty summons.

  4. Isn’t it funny how so much is asked of us as people, but very little is given in return? This, of course has one exception, being the military. But alas, that’s a topic for another time. The little guy must bear the financial burden, as any real compensation for jury duty would affect corporate profits or military spending. Sad.

    Reading your post, however, leads me to certain questions:

    1. Are vegetarians required to grill and/or eat meat on 4 July?

    2. Under the current elected body, how long before another version of the Patriot Act will eradicate the right to trial by jury?

    3. How long it will be before that other little letter starts being sent in the mail again (conscription), representing another duty the government has in the past required of it’s citizens?

    4. In terms of seeing our responsibilities within the democratic process, how many are left that see the vital importance of questioning everything and anything the government does?

    Other than that, hope things are well, and if you’re chosen, that the trial is as brief as possible so you can have a quick return back to the real world.


  5. I am one of the few who wouldn’t mind being summoned for jury duty. One of my employees informed me last week that he had been summoned. He was apologetic — an attitude that I don’t understand. I haven’t been summoned in many years, but was honored to have served on two juries in the nearly 30 years I’ve been a voter.

    Good post, BL.

  6. My one and only time doing jury duty was about nine months ago. I’d lived in the area for about 9 years, but had never been called.

    I ended up being the jury foreman (foreperson ?) mostly because no one else would do it. 🙂 Thankfully the trial was only for 3 days. So there wasn’t a real loss of income, even though I am self employed. I just worked some during the evenings to make up for it. The joys of being a web developer.

    Personally I think that military service should be mandatory for all. Partially that’s because being raised an Air Force brat, being married to an Air Force enlisted person, and having served myself.

    Only one of my children went into the service. He’s been to Iraq and Qtar once each time.

    Note that the branch of service made a big difference.

    Oh, and BL, you’re not quite the old coot yet. Even though you just had a birthday. Your two older brothers are the ones who get to be old coots first. They’re the ones approaching a certain age milestone. I’m way past that milestone. We all know who in our family is the REAL “old coot.” 🙂 And it isn’t Mom.

    Hi, Mom!

  7. They have a similar system here in British Columbia, Canada, although I’ve never been called for it. I kind of wish I was, like some of the other commenters. Although there’s one local trial that I’m glad I missed that may carry on for more than a year about an alleged pig farmer serial killer. A thought provoking post…


  8. Wonderful Bloglily post – cracking jokes and a brilliantly expressed point. Like Courtney, I’ve never been called up for it. I think someone somewhere knows that having Gregory Peck in the witness stand would entirely clinch the matter for me.

  9. Bloglilly,
    It is so true that we do take are way of life and rights for granted. A trial by a jury of our peers is one of the greatest rights that we have. To serve on a jury is an honor and a celebration of one of our key rights.

    One of the best movies that illustrates this is “12 Angry Men” if you have not seen this, I highly suggest you watch it. It is so good, I have used it in some training scenarios.

    We are blessed, however what we have does not come without a cost. Jury duty is a small price of admission to pay for the freedoms and lifestyle that we have available to us.

  10. I believe that universal service to the country should be the rule. For those people who are conscientious objectors, they can serve by cleaning litter off road rights of way, or some other civic service.

    Jury duty is something I have never been called upon to do, and I also am one of the Odd Ducks who would like to do it.

    We just had an election in our town; it was about two proposals to continue certain sales taxes. Both measures passed. 12% of the voters registered to vote cast a ballot. This is how we will lose our freedoms, if we are not careful.

  11. I so agree with you, BL. I’m quite proud of having done jury service and love the fact that, when put to it, a bunch of utterly at odds strangers did their best to try and come to a just decision, as well as a ‘correct’ one. I’m also torn about the idea of compulsory voting, especially considering the amount of people who didn’t “play” but still complain vociferously about the result…

  12. I’ve been called twice for jury duty so far, but both times I had exams at uni. I’d love to do it though, but I am planning on training as a lawyer!

    Something that has been bothering me recently is the law vs justice. There was recently a reality tv show following a jury made up of minor ‘celebrities’ who were making a decision on a real rape case. The evidence was such that they would not pronounce the defendants guilty although they almost all believed they had in fact raped a young woman. The young woman’s grief when the verdict was read out made me feel physically sick – if those men had raped her, as most of the jury believed, they were walking free and she had to pick up her life as best she could knowing that justice had not been done. I don’t think I could be on the jury for a case like that. I couldn’t turn my back on something like that because of legal technicalities. I know they are there for a reason, but I couldn’t do it.

  13. I reminds me of Greek democracy, when ordinary (I mean free) citizens could be assigned any public office by lottery for up to a year (except war generals, who had to be professionals). Apparently, it was a good solution against corruption.

    I am certain that if democratic governments were to replace a fraction of our monetary taxes with corvées and democratic duties, many of us would readily step in — somehow, it would show that democracy is not a commercial product that you pay for with tax money.

  14. Same here in Canada. I’ve been called up twice (apparently the statistics say that being called up more than once NEVER happens) and the last time I sat in ‘the holding pen’ for three straight days. I read a book a day. Excellent if you ask me.

  15. Not surprisingly, I’m like Courtney. I’ve always thought it might be very interesting to serve on a jury. In my state, you receive a letter and then call the night before to find out whether or not you actually have to show up in court where you may or may not be chosen to serve on a jury. I’ve gotten two letters, but alas, have called the night before to find I’m not needed at court. I’ve always felt it’s not too much to be asked, especially, as you note, in a place where our country asks very little of us. And there have been times when I’ve thought it might actually be a lovely break to be sequestered for a week or two with nothing to do in the evenings but eat and read (but, of course, my imagination is always conjuring up an extremely interesting trial in which the jury is engaged in lively debates and the final outcome is the one I wanted).

  16. I apologize for not replying promptly and properly to the many wonderful comments on this thread. I’m amazed and impressed to see how many people welcome fulfilling this obligation.

    Ann, Voting is indeed another civic obligation that’s so incredibly important and shockingly undersupported. I know there are countries that make it mandatory — sort of like doing your taxes, I think. It’s one way to signal its importance, even though when I first thought about it, it seemed so … compulsory.

    Diana, So many institutions are not family/child/parenting friendly. But there’s a trend toward making the court system both more understandable and more accessible.

    Courtney — all I can say is S. is very lucky to be married to someone like you.

    Jeff, A few answers: Vegetarians can grill something meat-like, especially if they live on the coast: portobello mushrooms would be my pick. As for the current congress, I think they’re going to be holding the line against stuff like that. That’s why they were elected. Let’s see if they were listening. A draft? I don’t think that’s going to happen. The best way to hide what a disaster Iraq is is to make sure that very few people make any sacrifices. As for questioning the government: every second!

    Hello Cam — I’ll bet your response helped straighten him out a little. Sometimes all the young ‘uns need is a reminder of how things are.

    Susan, Old cootness is clearly genetic and we all have a strong O.C. gene.

    Fencer — A pig farmer serial killer! Wow. Maybe grizzly, but still, how macabre.

    Dear litlove, It’s always far, far better to be stuck in an institutional situations when handsome people are around you. Gregory Peck would get my vote.

    TBM: I think 12 Angry Men is a great one to rent, and I’m going to put it in our netflix queue. Thanks for the reminder.

    HMH — I’m always amazed by how few people actually vote — and for such important things, too.

    Re-Dad — I think compulsory voting would be a great thing to at least try. Maybe for a five year period or something. And you get a fine if you don’t show up — isn’t that how it works? But it’s also true that people are probably more likely to vote if it’s made easier.

    Dear Max, That is indeed one of the hardest things about the criminal justice system: that the protections built into it, protections we’d certainly want to be there if we were accused of a crime, sometimes result in people going free despite our great suspicion that they’re guilty. There’s more to be said about this, but certainly you’ve put your finger on one of the great subjects you’ll encounter in law school.

    Mandarine — I love how creative you are. I think that lottery system would be very fun! I’d like to teach for a year, or be a street crossing guard. Or maybe something physical, like cleaning the streets. Or mayor. Yes — that’s for me. I wouldn’t mind being mayor, just for a year.

    Heather T. — A book a day. That sounds so healthy!

    Emily, The idea of sequestration appeals to me too.

    All — I see we’ve got a jury here, of 15 people — that would be the 12 and then 3 alternates. My sister Sue can be the foreman, since she’s got some experience bossing people around. I’d pick all of you in a second to decide a case fairly.

  17. Pingback: Jury Duty Begins | Abi Jones

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