The Joy of Jury Duty

Why Americans should stop complaining and learn to appreciate this constitutional obligation
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Americans who did not show up for jury duty as mandated raise their hands in response to a question from Circuit Judge Gregory Holder, at a lecture on civic responsibility in Tampa, Florida on November 4, 2011. (Skip O' Rourke/AP)

How can one appreciate an obligation? This is a question approximately 30 million Americans don't ask every year when they receive their jury summons because they are too busy grumbling about this core constitutional responsibility of citizenship. This is also a question of growing importance as courts are struggling to find enough jurors for trials.

It all begins with a letter in the mail. "Dear Citizen," it reads. You hold in your hand an invitation. Sure, it uses the word "summons," and is probably not the kind of invitation you look forward to receiving. Yet, it is still an invitation -- an invitation to participate in the American experiment of self-government. And you can feel flattered that you have been invited. It means that you have not committed a felony (that anyone knows about), that you are mature enough to judge others, and that your community needs you. It's only polite to accept. And, it's even better to think about how you might enjoy the experience.

Turning the dread of jury duty into a form of enjoyment begins with understanding why jury duty matters. Simply put, it may well be the closest you ever come to the Constitution -- not just exercising a right it gives you, but participating in the process through which constitutional rights and values come alive in practice. In a country formed from a single founding document, it is amazing how disconnected most of us are from its meaning and purpose. Jury duty changes that reality - it is a day of constitutional connection. It is also a government-provided free pass from your normal family and work responsibilities. It is the law of the land that you cannot complete your workaday routine. Jury duty thus provides an opportunity (with plenty of waiting time) to reflect on our shared constitutional values.

What are these constitutional values? Participation, deliberation, fairness, equality, accountability, liberty, and the common good - these are constitutional values, and they are embedded in jury service.

A jury summons is an invitation to participation. Jurors are asked to involve themselves in some of the most personal, sensational, and terrifying events in a community. It is real life, usually real tragedy, played out in court. Jurors confront disturbing facts, bloody images, or heart-wrenching testimony. A jury may have to decide whether a man lives or dies, or whether a multimillion-dollar company goes bankrupt. A jury will have to pass judgment in a way that will have real-world effects on both parties before the court. This active role was not accidental. Participation in jury service teaches the skills required for democratic self-government. Being a juror lets you develop the habits and skills of citizenship.

What are these "democracy" skills? Think about what is required for a politically active nation. As a juror, you are asked to "vote" based on contested facts. You must debate issues framed by contesting parties. This involves listening to others and tolerating dissenting views (as well as expressing your own opinions). Jurors necessarily expand their social interaction with different types of people, broadening perspectives, contacts, and sources of information. To apply the law jurors must understand the law, the rights of the parties, and the legal rules guiding the decision. Each of these participatory skills--deliberation, debate, tolerance, cooperation, civility, legal decision making--is what we need for a democracy to work. The participatory aspect of jury duty shapes our constitutional character. Those habits and skills, our civic education, helps define who we are as Americans.

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Andrew Guthrie Ferguson is an assistant professor of law at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, and author of Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press 2013). 

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