I was released from jury duty today. This was my third day. Over the last few days, I’ve had a look into our judicial system and I have made several observations which have inspired a few personal declarations. This blog is not about my personal declarations, though, if you read between the lines, you’ll know them. This blog is about my opinions on civic duty and the rights we are granted as citizens of the United States to participate in democratic processes. We live in a democracy. I realize we don’t necessarily acknowledge this on a daily basis and frequently, we (as a collective, and yes, me personally) complain about the state of our nation. Truthfully, few people walk the talk. Instead, we sit back and complain.
As a whole, our nation’s citizens do not exercise the rights provided to them. The low percentages of Americans who vote reflect (to me) a widespread apathy among the general population towards the democratic processes. Fewer still take the time to write letters, send emails, or call their representatives and senators to express their opinions or vocalize their complaints. Instead, we write emails to each other or post blogs in the same amount of time we could be writing to our elected officials. Why do we as a nation, send the disgruntled message(s) to each other and not to our elected officials?
Since 2001, the nation has not rallied to the Bill of Rights. Instead, I feel we’ve turned away from the very documents that secure our individual rights. We’ve (seemingly) handed our nation to a President and to a Congress (and therefore, by de facto, the judicial branch as well with Bush nominated and confirmed Supreme Court judges) without caution and certainly without a strong voice of protest. Individual rights (like the basic right to trial with representation, our right to privacy, thank you for the illegal wire taping, Mr. Bush) are being diminished. Our nation’s democratic processes will only work effectively and efficiently (as they were designed to be) IF WE, as a nation of INDIVIDUAL CITIZENS, participate in them.
As most of you know, I’ve been on an obsessive reading kick for nearly a year now on all topics related to the Revolutionary War and the founding years of our nation. Call it geeky interest. Regardless, I frequently find myself lost in thought, considering the actions in those foundling years. The men who led our country at its inception were not like average American today. They were privileged and led by their ideals to overthrow an oppressive government which did not permit Colonial representation in British parliament. Yet, under punishment of death, these privileged few led a makeshift army of individuals to fight for the removal of this oppressive government and its laws. Few of us today even take a moment to consider this or reflect upon our nation’s development.
I find myself discouraged on occasion (err, insert rant and rave on Bush’s presidential actions, his cabinet, and the newly disposed Republican led Congress); however, I have a voice. You have a voice. Are we so removed from the political decisions of our ELECTED officials that we (as a collective or as single individuals) cannot induce change? I do not think so.
In the United States, we have three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial). We elect our officials and everyone has a voice (and opportunity) to influence them. For me, I am not very familiar with the judicial system or processes. I’ve never been in a position (aside from minor traffic infractions) to find myself inside of the system. Until this week, I’d never been inside of a court room. (I watch Law and Order, I get the gist, right?). Having had family and friends who have found themselves in the system (either working within it or being processed through it), I have had a mildly dark or even impassive opinion of it for a few reasons. It is not a fair system. It has its loop holes and black cavernous underbelly. Overall, I struggle to believe the judicial system (specifically the criminal system) “works.”
I am 33 and until this week, I had not been summoned to jury duty. I, like most people I know, grumbled and thought “surely there is a way for me to get out of THIS.” And truly, there are ways, but it’s my current thought “why would I?” This week has changed my outlook and have one conclusion. It is OUR system. If it does not WORK, it is because we, as a nation, as a group of citizens, as a city, a state, have allowed it to become a weakened and sometimes corrupt series of processes that struggle to carry out its duties.
For those of you who have not had jury duty, here’s a description of the event. For those of you who have attended, skip down.
You receive a summons, you show up at the time/place indicated on the summons. You receive a badge and watch a video along with several hundred other potential jurors. You wait around. You fill out a voir dire form that asks you basic information about yourself. Are you a citizen? Are you 18? Been convicted of a felony? Interestingly enough, you are not asked your address (only your neighborhood) or your social security number. Additionally you are asked to supply your occupation, name of your employer, your previous employer, level of education, marital status (and occupation of your spouse), and you are asked to provide the name, sex, and ages of your children (if any). Lastly, there are four (seemingly simple) questions at the bottom. Are you, a close friend, or relative: 1. part of a law enforcement agency (federal, state)? 2. been victim of a crime? 3. been convicted of a crime? 4. been witness to a crime?
You take your questionnaire with you when you are assigned to a trial (and unless you are called to be interviewed by the legal representatives, no one sees this questionnaire). Once you (and the other potential jurors, of which there are like 40 or more) enter the courtroom, you are seated and sworn in. The defendant, their attorney, and the prosecutor are present and introduce themselves. The judge explains the jury process. You are provided an opportunity to be dismissed from that particular trial (estimated trial duration is disclosed). If you take this option, you may be released by the judge (heard on case to case basis) and then sent back down to join the pool of potential jurors for other trials. You may be released if serving on a jury may cause you financial hardship, are a student enrolled in courses, or a primary caregiver to children or elderly. You may not be excused if serving will cause hardship (financial or otherwise) to your employer (who is required by law to allow you to serve without reprimand, but who does not have to pay you wages when you are serving as a juror).
Once this process has been completed (which is not a short one, by the way), you are then filed back into the courtroom (perhaps the next day) and then begins the true juror selection. The judge reads all of the indictments against the defendant. You are reminded that the burden of proof lies solely with the prosecution, the defendant is considered innocent of all charges until it can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did in fact commit actions which violated the law.
When I got the summons, I had a snafu. It was because of this snafu I got the “come to God” attitude and decided I’d better just buck up and not try to get out of it. Previously, I’ve laughed and made fun of friends and coworkers who have been summoned. I have brainstormed crazy answers for them to use which may result in them being dismissed as a potential juror. Let’s be real, no one really wants to grow up to be a juror. However, as I sat in the courtroom and listened to over a dozen of potential jurors explain why they were so important/busy, etc., they could not serve, I had a sense of responsibility creep over me. I could have claimed hardship and more than likely, I would have received a dismissal from this particular trial. At that point, it would be a crap shoot whether or not I’d get assigned to another case that same day.
My current opinion regarding this specific duty is that while inconvenient, it is my civic duty to serve on a jury. Ultimately, my company will pay for up to three days of jury duty. So, I told myself, “ride it out and be dismissed as a potential juror because my personal history and or opinions prevent me from being unbiased.” Within the judicial process, you are provided the right to have a jury of your peers evaluate the indictments of which you are charged. I looked around and watched MY PEERS (ie age group, race, seemingly similar socio-economic status) claim they could not possibly serve given their “commitments.”
If I were to be arrested, charged, and put on trial, who would be my peers? I looked around the courtroom to see who was left. Middle-aged moms, lots of retired persons, and a handful of young college-aged kids. Fewer still were folks MY age. Most were white; there were no representatives of other ethnicities aside from a small handful of Latinos and Asians. So, if it had been me on trial, the majority of my potential peers were more than likely retired conservative white folks. Super. Okay, I’m stereotyping a bit, but I’m not sure about you, but I’d rather not have someone from my grandfather’s generation (and all that entails) evaluating the circumstances for which I find myself sitting in the defendant’s chair. If I had these feelings, what did the young, black defendant think about the pool of his “peers?”
I considered this all day yesterday and it was still on my mind when I turned back last night to the history book I’m reading. This system should work, I kept thinking. And its creation is rather unique and certainly, many citizens of the world do envy the basic rights Americans are provided (at least theoretically).
When I expressed some of my observations to my friend Chris, he said, “Yup. It’s amazing the system even works.” This from someone who participates in the juror selection process EVERY YEAR. Surely, there are people who cannot serve although they may want to, if it was economically viable for them to do so. However, it is not amazing to me that the system limps along amongst our society’s recriminations and admonishments when we as citizens do not seemingly want to participate.
In closing, I ask you to consider the following:
1. Do you vote in local or national elections? And if you do not, do you complain about domestic and foreign policies? Why do you choose to let your voice be silenced?
2. Do you know your constitutional rights as a citizen of the United States? Do you understand that by not participating in the democratic process, you are by de facto allowing your rights to be diminished, suppressed, or all together removed from you?
3. If you were to be on trial, who would you want as your peers? Wouldn’t you want a sane, intelligent person, like yourself, to evaluate the circumstances that land you in the defendant’s chair?
4. Have you considered playing “it’s a wonderful life” with your constitutional rights? Meaning, if you were a convicted felon or not a citizen of the United States (either living here or abroad in a nation that does not provide similar rights), what could your life be like?
I asked myself these questions. And I will continue to ask myself these questions when I become discouraged or dismissive of our nation’s current state of being. As to #4, I reflect and think “I’d be sitting in a prison cell without hope of a trial for having the audacity to voice these concerns or ask these questions aloud.”