How jury duty restored my hope in democracy.
My heart sank when I saw the envelope in the day’s stack of mail.
“Your civic duty!” it read. Inside was a summons to appear at a Boston court for possible empanelment on a jury – trial length unknown. I feverishly checked my calendar, hoping to find a conflict around my service date. Finding none, I began to scour my brain for excuses not to serve. Would children be stranded at school if I served? Would our family’s finances crumble? Let’s be honest: most of us know this dread and subsequent mental calculus well.
When the day finally came to report, a combination of having precisely zero conflicts or excuses and a moral inability to baldly lie to a judge led to my being selected from more than 100 Bostonians for the 14-person jury. (two would be alternates, selected just before deliberations) We were given the basic gist of the criminal case and told to clear our schedules for the next week or more. Bummer.
But once I’d settled into the reality that my job for the foreseeable future would be juris prudence, I not only began to find the process deeply fascinating, it actually restored my hope in the fundamentals our democracy -- which is stronger than I ever realized.
All American citizens enjoy two primary modes of participation in our democracy: voting and jury service. The first, voting, is voluntary. In the most exciting presidential races, somewhere around 60 percent of all eligible voters turn out at the polls, while local elections can draw asfew as 20 percent of registered voters. Equally as abysmal are the rates of those who are called to serve on a jury. The National Center for State Courts has found that just 15 percent of Americans are summoned to jury duty eachyear, and only 5 percent end up serving on a jury. A full 31 percent of Americans believe jury service “does not have much to do with being a good citizen,” according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey.
But from the nascent days of both the Commonwealth and the nation, juries were baked into our American experiment. Despite having developed in its modern form in 15th century England, the United States Declaration of Independence called out King George for “depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury.” Massachusetts’ Constitution – the world’s oldest continuously used constitution, drafted in 1780 by John Adams – guarantees each person the right to a trial by jury in both civil and criminal cases. Drawing inspiration from Massachusetts’ Constitution, the framers of the United States Constitution enshrined in Article III and Amendments 6 and 7 the fundamental right of the accused to be judged by a jury of their peers.
The accused always enjoy the assumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of his or her peers – regardless of one’s net worth, skin color, or the severity of their crime. Revolutionary as it is, the legal principle has not always been applied perfectly, as people of color – long under-represented (if at all) on juries and judge’s benches – too often are convicted at a higher rate and face stiffer sentences than their white peers.
My jury’s diversity was one of the most refreshing aspects of our two-week trial. Whittled down to 14 from more than 100, our jury was majority black or brown, with no fewer than three individuals born abroad. In a state where women couldn’t serve on juries until 1950 – decades after getting the vote – my jury was more than 50 percent female. Several jurors had been born and raised in Boston, while others (like myself) had moved here from the suburbs or out of state. We were blue and white collar, students, and unemployed. “You are Boston,” the judge told us in private after the trial had concluded, “and each of you brought your own life experience into this deliberation.”
Even more extraordinary is the fact that this group of strangers from every walk of life could, working from the same body of evidence, apply the law and achieve unanimity in its verdict. We took it slow, deferred to each other, addressed each other’s questions and concerns, helped each other understand more clearly what we were seeing, and ultimately achieved perfect harmony in our decision. The deliberation process was something to behold, and the excitement was palpable as we realized we’d finished the job.
“I know we’ve released guilty people in our courts, but I’ve never seen a jury get it wrong, based on the evidence presented in court,” the judge continued.
We hear a lot these days about how divided we are, but jury service revealed otherwise. Perhaps jury duty, where the freedom of one of our peers often hangs in the balance, brings out what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
But deeper than that, serving on a jury restored my hope in the promise of our American democracy at a time when that democracy appears threatened. We have, undergirding our society, a bedrock of principles and laws that supersede any current controlling party or occupant of the White House or State House. Even as rhetorical wars rage in the political media and between Americans on social media, the American justice system – imperfect and blemished as it is – serves as a time-tested safety net for our democracy. We are, after all, according to Adams “a government of laws, not of men.”
Juries, a foundation of that democratic safety net, remind us that our government works most equitably when it is by and for the people. Tocqueville, in reflecting in 1835 on his observations of American society, put it well: “The jury, which is the most energetic means of making the people rule, is also the most efficacious means of teaching it to rule well.”
Serving on a jury made me a believer in this small but significant part I can play in our civil society. So much so that the next time I see a summons in the mail with my name on it, I’ll receive it with a sense of duty – not dread.
A repository of my work, photos, and random reflections. Views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of publications or other clients with which I work.