Friday, January 25, 2008

Jury Duty

Okay, so. I was called to jury duty yesterday. I really like the idea of the jury system that we have here in the U.S. It is one of the most successful and egalitarian of our democratic institutions. According to the introduction to jury service that I attended yesterday morning, the San Diego court system (city and county, superior and municipal, I think) is the third largest court organization in the U.S. Over one million jury summons are sent out every year. That is a lot of people and takes a lot of work to keep it running smoothly.

One of the things I like about the system as it stands is that it really only requires the potential jurors to bring their common sense to bear on the case. It does not require specialized scientific, psychological, business or legal knowledge to participate. Indeed, if you have something relevant to the case you will probably be excused from serving! That, in itself, really levels the playing field.

There are, of course, some people who will be overlooked or excluded. People who are deaf or significantly hard-of-hearing and people who don't have a facile grasp of spoken English can't serve. (I wonder if people who can't read are excluded, too.) That essentially makes English the official language of our legal system so recent immigrants are likely to be underrepresented. That said, there are good reasons for this as far as making the system work properly. Translation is a tricky thing - especially live translation - and nuances are tricky enough for native speakers. Nevertheless, it is no less exclusionary even if it is necessary to make the system work.

Another aspect is the number of constraints placed on the jury. Again, there are many good reasons for some, or even most, of these constraints but it seems to me that some get in the way of finding the truth. Admittedly, the jury is expected to decide the truth but a jury is (supposedly) limited to the facts (and incident information) presented during the testimony and evidence phase of a trial.

One aspect that does bother me is how many people want to avoid serving on a jury. I admit that it is daunting on several fronts. My work will pay for me to perform up to ten days of jury service but other companies pay for fewer and some don't pay at all. The law only requires that the company not fire people for serving.

I think some people are uncomfortable with making decisions for or about other people - I speak for myself but I am sure that others feel the same. Some of these decisions are life-and-death, multiple years of incarceration, loss of rights, loss of access to loved ones, the chance that the wrong decision is made, lost hopes for justice (or revenge), lost wealth, lost health, etc. The people on a jury will be responsible for choosing who loses - somebody always loses. The loss is always a big loss. That is daunting.

I wonder if people in our society are less community-oriented and so feel less responsibility for the community and, therefore, less responsible to their community. I know that I tend to pick and choose what sub-communities I feel responsible for and to. It might be better to say that I have different levels of commitment to various aspects of our society.

Anyway, to Taarna's question: What do I value most? I value our system of justice for how effective it is considering the pressures on it. Even with its flaws, I appreciate its basis as a distinctly democratic institution.


wickedwitch said...

I had my first jury duty this past Friday as well. I was very excited because I wanted to see how the system worked. Bad case, bad group, bad feelings, bad nightmares. I had been anticipating jury duty for years and was so pleased when I was finally seated. I'm pretty sure that I never, ever want to do it again. I came back with a headache and an even worse opinion of my fellow man, and I'm talking about the jurors, not the defendent.

ScottMGS said...

I've heard stories like yours before. The one time I was chosen to actually serve on a jury it went pretty well, though, so your mileage may vary.