Jury Duty: A Non-Stop Adrenaline Thrill Ride of Fun, Honest

Why I have trouble hating on my civic obligation.

Nov 23, 2011 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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"I have jury duty," I said.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," they said.

And by "they" I mean almost everyone.

At this point in my life, I feel like I could be some sort of juror consultant -- I've been called for jury duty seven times in the past six years, and I've served on five juries. There seems to be a snowball effect in place; once you admit to the judge and lawyers that you've been a juror before, the odds of you being a juror again go up.

Now, I have no problem admitting I'm a nerd. I'm the kind of nerd who loves Star Trek and talking about semicolons (don't even get me started on commas, man) and mobile technologies. I also have a thing for federal architecture. I do, I love federal buildings. So my geekery about civic duty probably shouldn't come as a surprise.

When I was a kid, I was determined to be a lawyer. An international trade attorney, specifically. It's possible that I was kind of tightly wound as a child, y'all. I worked toward that until I realized I didn't know any happy lawyers -- and that hanging out with art majors was really fun. My plans changed, obvs, because I am not writing this from a swanky law office. But my respect for the way the legal system works stuck around.

The legal system, I have to point out, is hella flawed, particularly in the way it operates for members of oppressed and/or endangered groups of people. They like to say that justice is blind but that is both ableist and, uh, not accurate in the slightest. Justice is kind of an inconsistent concept at best (if you're curious about this, check out the death penalty stats regarding who we execute and why). But even with its flaws, I'm pretty down with the idea of the trial by jury system. (It's much better than the trial by torture method, after all.)

Unfortunately, given my informal survey of folks, finding a jury of my (radical liberal) peers might very well be impossible. None of my peers are interested in jury duty -- though they have plenty of amusing anecdotes and strategies about how to get out of jury duty.

Listen, people, I know that jury duty is a pain in the ass. We've all got shit to do. But there seems to be this liberal middle class attitude. I work a busy damn job and have a fairly complex personal life. But I'm not above jury duty.

Maybe part of the problem with civic duty is that so many of us are disgruntled with the government -- or even passionately angry about the things that have happened in the U.S. over the past decade.

I don't trust my government, and I don't think that's uncommon. It's easy to be resentful of the process when so much of the process is broken. But here's the real problem I have with the progressive get-out-of-jury-duty game: When progressives actively avoid sitting on juries, verdicts -- and therefore legal precedents -- reflect conservative values I am often not comfortable with. Liberal disdain for civic duty removes our influence from the courtroom in a very real, very everyday way.

Now, there are a lot of conservative values I appreciate. [A deep dark secret: I was vice-president of the Young Republicans club in high school. I was a registered Republican voter. I'm a big fat (literally) radical liberal now, but that transformation is another post.] And maybe my sample is skewed because I work with a lot of ex-military these days but the only people who didn't apologize to me about my upcoming jury service were political conservatives who usually make me grind my teeth -- from them, I got a lot of "I hope you get an interesting case."

Even so, there is a lot of correlation between conservative politics and the perpetuation of oppression. (I'm being real careful here because I don't want to imply that being politically conservative automatically makes someone a bigot. Correlation does not equal causation. Necessarily.)

The case I heard this time around was a civil suit, personal injury. My local county government was the defendant. And one of the concerns, which was quite valid, was that jurors might be reluctant to award the plaintiff a substantial amount of money because our tax dollars would be the ultimate source of those funds. Turns out, this was a totally valid concern -- and was a source of some drama in the deliberation room.

As I sat there, surrounded by folks who were much more politically conservative than me, I wondered if things would be different with a more liberal jury. Maybe they wouldn't have been -- maybe we'd still have been fighting tooth and nail. (My fellow jurors were wonderful people -- we respected and liked each other but that doesn't mean we agreed on much.) But, honestly, I think there would have been less unwillingness to give the plaintiff a generous settlement.

Some of that conviction comes into play because of anti-oppression politics. The plaintiff was a big dude in general, but he was also a fat dude. And that was commented on. A lot. The trial focused on a car vs. motorcycle accident in which he lost one leg above the knee. There was a lot of "lazy disabled person" rhetoric thrown around in that courtroom, y'all.

I'm not sure it would have been as effective with a more liberal jury.

And, really, that's what it comes down to, for me. If I'm ever in need of a jury of my peers, and a defense lawyer implies that I'm too fat to deserve a prosthetic leg, I want that jury to be pissed off. I want that jury to acknowledge the challenges and realities involved in losing a limb and not assume a person is lazy for not running right out and getting a job. I want a jury that thinks about identity politics, y'all.

But liberals and progressives seem hell-bent on getting out of their jury service. So if I'm ever in need of my peers, they'll all be trading stories about how they lied to the lawyers so they wouldn't have to sit on a jury. That sounds bitter, but, hey, it is bitter.

Jury duty is almost always inconvenient. It is often boring. It can be hugely frustrating (lemme tell you about a mistrial after 6 days of service -- juris prudence interruptus and all that) and difficult.

It's also vitally important. To individuals and to our legal system as an entity. I don't know how the hell to make jury duty cool -- I'd say "again" but I don't know that it was ever cool in the first place. But I'd like to think there is some way to remind people: The judicial branch doesn't work without individual participation.

That's why I kind of get a thrill every time I get the little red and white summons in the mail.