Yesterday I completed the performance of part of my civic obligation by participating in jury duty. The notice had arrived a month or so ago and I left it sitting on my desk like an unresolved issue. Should I beg off? I’m old enough to be excused for almost any reason. In the end I decided to answer the summons thinking that it would be of great enough interest to make the experience worthwhile.
The first day, when we prospective jurors had to assemble by 8:30 a.m., included the adventure of finding the right building and searching fruitlessly for a parking spot until giving up the search and parking in the nine-story cylindrical parking garage.
In the Jury Assembly Room nearly 200 of us sat around reading, texting, tableting and otherwise occupying ourselves until the computer chose 90 names at random to form the jury pool for the trial. When the names were called, mine among them, and the chosen ninety had been moved to one side of the room, we were addressed by the judge. He appeared in his judicial robes and was accompanied by the lawyers for the trial.
The judge gave us a little talk about the splendors of the jury system and how it distinguished our system of justice from that of much of the world. In theory I agreed with him, but in practice it seemed a little extravagant to have nearly 200 people discomfited by the summons when 12 or fewer would eventually be chosen. Still, the interest level was high. The other prospective jurors were an eclectic looking bunch of diverse people (whose ages skewed younger than I would have guessed) and when we were told to return the next afternoon I left looking forward to it.
The next day we all met in the actual courtroom and got ready for a presumed day of selection. The lawyers were arranged at their tables and when the judge entered we prepared for a lengthy process of winnowing. And then the judge announced that the parties had settled and there would be no trial and we were free to leave in the secure knowledge that we had done our civic duty.
I can’t say I was sorry to be excused, we all were relieved and happy to have the disruption to our lives over with so easily, but I was a little disappointed not to go through more of the process.
Before excusing us the judge made another little speech about the jury process and pointed out that the parties often had to be convinced of the imminence of a trial to be motivated enough to settle. Apparently, just the threat of the jury is a powerful incentive to avoidance. We listened politely and then filed out, in a rush to return to our regular lives.
It wasn’t until later that evening that I began to appreciate the activity. Juries are our principal safeguard against abuses of the powerful. Jury duty is the one exercise of constitutional authority given to the people, (besides voting) and when I thought about it more deeply it did leave me with a feeling of civic pride. Pride in the system and pride in the scads of people who willingly show up to give their time (at the cost of some income in almost all cases) and their promise to give their best efforts to the maintenance of a society where disputes can be settled peacefully.
I am not much given to pride as an emotion, especially not where government is concerned, but jury duty is a function of the people, not the government, and as such demonstrates where the real power in society resides, and that does make me proud.