It’s easy to forget how important the jury really is to America. The right to be a juror is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed to all eligible citizens. The right to trial by jury helped spark the American Revolution, was quickly adopted at the Constitutional Convention, and is the only right that appears in both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But for most of us, a jury summons is an unwelcome inconvenience. Who has time for jury duty? We have things to do.
In Why Jury Duty Matters, Andrew Guthrie Ferguson reminds us that whether we like it or not, we are all constitutional actors. Jury duty provides an opportunity to reflect on that constitutional responsibility. Combining American history, constitutional law, and personal experience, the book engages citizens in the deeper meaning of jury service. Interweaving constitutional principles into the actual jury experience, this book is a handbook for those Americans who want to enrich the jury experience. It seeks to reconnect ordinary citizens to the constitutional character of a nation by focusing on the important, and largely ignored, democratic lessons of the jury.
Jury duty is a shared American tradition. It connects people across class and race, creates habits of focus and purpose, and teaches values of participation, equality, and deliberation. We know that juries are important for courts, but we don’t know that jury service is important for democracy. This book inspires us to re-examine the jury experience and act on the constitutional principles that guide our country before, during, and after jury service.At the NYU Press blog, Pete Hahn reflects on his own experience. He was previously reluctant to serve.
This year, I was called again, and things were different. First of all, the commissioner of jurors and the welcoming judge both made speeches that acknowledged that everyone in the room just wanted to get out of it … but also explained why it was so important. What stuck with me was not the concept of “civic duty,” but the idea of jury service as public service. This country really does not ask much of its citizens: you do not have to vote, you do not have to worship, you do not have to serve in the military… all that is really asked of us is that we obey the law, pay our taxes, and, when summoned, appear for jury duty. Not much to ask for all of the freedoms we enjoy.
Regardless of what that verdict is, when you, the Jury, file back into the courtroom to read the verdict to the defendant, judge, and attorneys, it is impossible not to feel the weight of the situation, impossible not to wonder whether you “got it right.” What you realize at that moment is that this is how the system is supposed to work. The judge doesn’t get to decide. The D.A. doesn’t decide. The jury decides whether the prosecution proved their case. The defendant is presumed innocent until and unless the prosecution meets that burden of proof. And twelve ordinary citizens got to make that decision. And the awesome responsibility of being part of that decision, watching justice in action, being part of a system that works – I realize that serving on a jury is a privilege, not a duty. If people only knew about this part of the process, we would have a line of citizens trying to get chosen, instead of trying to get excused. I’m just sorry that I have to wait six more years for my next summons.