Doing the Duty

Back in July, I received a summons for jury duty. Since the date they originally wanted my service clashed directly with an important family event – specifically, the all-to-rare opportunity to spend time with my non-local family – I sought and received a deferment. Hard to believe it’s been 90 days, but my time is up.

I’m willing to serve. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a civic duty. An important function, but for which chaos would reign. If I had a damn good reason to avail myself of the court, I hope others would feel the same. But that’s only because we haven’t devised a better way to do the duty juries do.

I think jury duty belies an interesting cultural paradox. On one hand, it reflects some of the highest and best ideals of a civilization that is trying hard to leave behind its reverence for, and dependence on, authoritarianism. We no longer rely on the king or the nearest convenient duke or church official to decide what’s true and fair. The good is judged by the people, in whom is vested wisdom and power, as it right. Or at least better.

On the other hand, the impulse to resort to the intervention of third parties to resolve disputes and try the facts shows that personal responsibility is still not ingrained in us. We know the truth and what’s best and what’s fair. Especially the guys who wear the suits and go to the courthouse to work, they know. We’ve all known, since we learned to use the bathroom by ourselves:

  • Don’t take what’s not yours. 
  • Don’t take more than your share. 
  • There’s a place for your stuff, keep it there. 
  • Don’t make messes for others to clean up. 
  • Don’t hurt others. 
  • Admit your mistakes.

If wisdom is invested in 12 of us, why isn’t it found more often in two of us who argue, or one of us who damn well knows better than to commit a crime?  If the cosmos of the town is tested true, how can its microcosm be so stupid?

Of course we have a right to a trial. We have the right to gather the neighbors and ask for their help in resolving disputes, as much as their help in putting out a fire or searching for a lost child. We live together in tribes and camps because we need each other. I’m just saying the courthouse should be the last resort.

A few years ago, I couldn’t write these thoughts and share them publicly without the aid of a local newspaper. Now my little essay is global in seconds. That is as much a social advance as a technological one. We have opened the means to publish to everyone, essentially free gratis. So it seems strange to me that a society that has amassed the insights of the ages and put it all within reach of our fingertips still sustains litigation as a common public institution. I mean, we’ve been doing the same thing for hundreds of years. Are we learning anything?

In law school, we were taught that most of a litigation lawyer’s job – and a criminal attorney’s too – is negotiation. Nobody really wants to wind up in court, if they can bargain, arbitrate, reach an accord and satisfaction, or somehow find a concilliatory common ground. Because only one of the lawyers is going to leave the courthouse with a smile, and neither of the parties ever will. The process simply sucks, and everybody pays.

If that’s true, why does every court have hundreds of people on jury standby at all times? What systemic FAIL is intractably repeating itself across the country every week?

I can’t help but think that if the convocation of the worthies was a last resort – and not a tool of leverage and rhetoric, too often somewhat mercenary – then a standing army of jurors would be on its way to being as obsolete as the horse and buggy or the floppy disc.

Of course, we still think war solves something, so there you go.    

Incidentally, I just called the courthouse number and I don’t have to show up on Monday. I call again Monday night, and we go from there.  Wherefore, let us all as of one mind squint our eyes, like Lady Justice behind her blindfold, and give another big push toward trying to evolve.

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