Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The duties of citizenship

Most people, at one or another time in their lives, have been summoned to perform Jury Duty.

That little post-card with the tear-off edges appears in the mailbox, telling you the date and place at which you are to appear to perform your civic duty.

I’ve gotten my share of these—three times, in fact, since I’ve turned 18. Every time, the reaction I get when I tell people I’ve been summoned is the same: sympathy. I get some variation on "What a drag", or "That sucks, man!"

I’ve never quite understood that reaction. I mean, I’m as unhappy about the disturbance to my comfortable daily routine as the next fellow, but I also know it’s an important part of civic life in America.

I was put in mind of this recently when I was at the Redmond public library. I passed a couple of women talking in hushed tones at a nearby table. One of the women was quizzing the other for a U.S. Citizenship examination, and I overheard her ask "What are the duties of citizenship?"

That is, what are you Constitutionally obligated to do by virtue of your status as an American citizen?

Not much, really. Just two things. One is to vote. The other is to serve on juries when called.

Sadly, Jury Duty has taken on such a burdensome connotation in our society. Somewhere in the bureaucracy and bother involved with explaining to your boss, getting down to the courthouse, and waiting around to be selected or dismissed, we’ve lost that sense of meaningful obligation to our fellow citizens.

Jury duty is a big deal. Jury trials are the cornerstone aspect of our legal process that keeps Americans relatively free—"enemy combatant" status notwithstanding—from being summarily pulled off the streets and thrown in jail forever.

The right to be judged by a jury of your peers—that is, by ordinary citizens rather than by a tribunal of elites—is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that Thomas Jefferson specifically called it out as a motivating reason for the colonies to go to war with England. Among many other offenses, King George was criticized:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury

In its earliest forms, this right dates back almost 800 years to the Magna Carta, which in 1215 first codified the concept that people should be tried by their peers.

And think about it: if, god forbid, you should find yourself hauled into court, would you rather be tried by a jury or subject only to the legal findings of a judge? Whether guilty or innocent, wouldn’t you want people who live in similar circumstances to yourself judge whether you deserve to go to jail? Or in Washington State, sadly, even be put to death?

If it were me, I’d certainly hope my jury was stocked with people who appreciate what their role is, both to weigh the facts against the law and to render a verdict, from a perspective that understands what it is like to live as an ordinary citizen in America today.

I think most people, if they spent a moment to think about it, would wish the same.

And if they spent another moment thinking about it, I suspect most people would realize that this means they have, as the Constitution spells out, a duty to do the same for other citizens who should find themselves on the docket.

Yes, Jury duty can be a pain in the neck. But if the Founding Fathers were willing to go to war for the right to serve on juries—and be judged by them—then surely the least we can do is treat it as an honor, rather than a bother.


OpenID onsafari said...

I'm saddened to see that you don't understand how people could be unhappy about the burdens of jury duty. It may be an honor and one of the cornerstones of our civil liberties, but that doesn't make it any less of a burden, in many cases a severe financial burden at that.

It's true that for the typical office worker all that's entailed is the cost of parking and losing ground on the daily activities of the working day. But for those that work in hourly positions, the burden is much more onerus. Having been in that position, I can tell you that when the decision is between making enough money to cover rent and food or going to sit waiting to possibly serve on a jury the latter will lose out every time.

It is this sort of disregard for alternate circumstances within progressive/democratic circles that upsets me. The continuation of the caucus system just highlights how terrible exclusive citizenship and participation in politics is.

June 18, 2009 12:41 PM  

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