The Joy of Jury Duty

Or, as another example, take the value of deliberation. In the very first sentence of The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays and arguments in favor of the U.S. Constitution, Alexander Hamilton invited Americans to this different way of deciding, "You are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution," he wrote (emphasis added). It was a call that perfectly fits the thinking of a democracy. Deliberation involves collective decision making--a willingness to think together using reason and informed discussion to come to a final decision.

Why is deliberation important? Because the process of deliberating--of sitting down and hashing out a problem with others--creates better thinkers and better decisions. As thinkers you become invested, informed, and connected. Such dynamic thinking forces you to consider different ideas and reason your way to a final decision. Through the process of deliberation, jurors are made aware of different viewpoints, sometimes even new worlds, as they are asked to judge life choices, industries, and realities that they may never have encountered before. Through jury instructions, jurors necessarily inform themselves about the legal system and the legal rules at play. Throughout the trial process, jurors develop the social mores necessary for success in other group activities. After all, if you can work with twelve people to agree on a verdict, you might be able to work together in a democracy.

Or as a final example, take the principle of equality. Throughout your jury service, you are known by a number--a juror number. You respond to that number. There are no nicknames or familiarities on jury duty. In the same way there are no titles. Whether you are a soccer mom or a Senator (or both), you are simply a number to the jury system. The number is not meant to insult, but to equalize. It provides the anonymity of being a citizen, one of millions who are doing exactly what you are doing in court: waiting for his or her number to be called.

Jury service allows you to see equality in action. In a world that is anything but equal, we tend to forget what equality feels like. You know your presidential vote counts as much as anyone else's, but you also know that the lobbyists, interest groups, and activists have more influence in the political process than your single vote. But in the jury room those differences become irrelevant. Whether you are a rocket scientist or rock guitarist, a linguist or laborer, jurors are given the same facts. Jurors see the same witnesses, hear the same arguments, and get an equal voice in the decision. Thus, the principle of one person, one vote, is actually observable on jury duty. This leveling mechanism strips away the divisions of our normal, unequal society. For a brief moment you see how democracy is supposed to work.

The invitation to jury service is thus an invitation to understand our most basic national principles. The simple fact is that jury duty is one of the few constitutional rights that every citizen has the opportunity to experience. It remains an American bond. It connects people across class, national origin, religion, and race. Jury experience exists as one of the remaining connecting threads in a wonderfully diverse United States. It links us to our founding principles and challenges us to live up to them. Every time you serve as a juror, you become closer to this constitutional spirit; and every time you reflect on and appreciate these principles, you strengthen our constitutional character. That is the joy of jury duty.

This article is adapted from the author's 2013 book Why Jury Duty Matters .
Presented by

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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