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Friday, May 3, 2013

Jury Duty, Deliberation, and Citizenship

At The Atlantic, Andrew Guthrie Ferguson writes about the value of jury duty:
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.
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.