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Jury Duty: A Slice of Life for Everyone

Finding the funny, gratifying, tragic upside of getting “stuck” on jury duty.

My reflex on getting called to jury duty is still “how can I get out of it,” but I know that’s mostly the reptilian, fight-or-flight part of my brain. Who’s asking, and why are you picking on me?  But these days one of my higher order functions is quicker to declare (just a little more loudly): I hope that I’ll be fit enough to serve.

When put on notice for jury duty, nobody wants their routine to be interrupted, to rub elbows with strangers, or spend days in an airless courtroom for the bus fare plus change you’ll be paid. The first impulse is running the other way. But on the flip side of “No-o-o-o” are some pretty persuasive “yeses.”

Jury duty is a call for neighbors to come together and decide whether someone else who lives or works here has failed to act in the ways they’re supposed to. The first question worth asking is whether you want to have a say in the matter or leave it to someone else?  In the 2016 presidential election, 40% (or more than 92 million eligible voters) left it for somebody else to decide—perhaps the most alarming statistic in America today.

“Being a good citizen” used to be all most people needed. You didn’t ignore the jury summons, the IRS letter, or a chance to vote for your representatives. Well no longer.

More of us are scofflaws today—literally scoffing at the law—because (maybe, hopefully) these civic obligations will just forget about us altogether if we keep on disregarding them.

Here in Philadelphia, so many ignore their calls to jury duty (175,000 out of 545,000 summons issued in 2015) that the court system has simply thrown up its hands when it comes to enforcement. Of those who respond, my guess is that many do so grudgingly. This is A VERY BIG (AND RESENTFUL) VOICE that says: “I just don’t care enough to help decide ‘what’s acceptable’ and ‘what’s not’ for those of us who live here.”

I’d argue that jury duty is at least as “citizen-gratifying” as marching with a protest sign, but there are other benefits that may sound less like a civics course for those who still need convincing.

I was picked for a jury recently, so these benefits are fresh in my mind. Lawyers never used to get picked, but this was the third time for me. Aside from seeing one of the jobs I do from an entirely different angle, the two most compelling pluses involve connection and storytelling. Here’s what I mean.

The deeper we dive into our phones, the more disconnected we become from other people. There is nothing like a closet-sized jury room to introduce you to members of your community.

In your hours together, you share snippets about lives and work, while your deliberations together are an intimate opportunity to encounter each one of them through their senses of right and wrong. Close quarters seldom get warmer than that.

Particularly in big cities, the other jurors are likely to come from different “walks of life” than your neighbors next door. The bubbles we increasingly inhabit have everyone looking more or less the same and agreeing about nearly everything.

A Philadelphia jury allows very different bubbles to touch and merge for a brief common purpose, and that’s been a cause for optimism each time I’ve experienced it. When you fear that America’s sky is falling, you are reminded how FUNNY, WISE, HUMBLE and DECENT other members of the public can be when you come together this way.

The stories you see and hear as a juror also tend to make the ones you’d otherwise be following pale in comparison. Sometimes the vivid characters or plot lines emerge from friendships that develop among jurors. As often, they’re from the comedies and tragedies that are playing out in front of you in the courtroom.

The comedy is usually unintended. This week, for example, counsel for a widow suing her husband’s doctors had such a strong accent that when he introduced himself all he could communicate to us clearly was his first name. His elderly client entered the courtroom in a wheelchair that appeared to be stolen from one of the airlines. And the attorney for the doctors had a skirt that was so short she practically mooned us when she sat down after introducing herself. There are no second chances to make first impressions like that.

But the stakes involved in “who’s telling the better story” can also be soul crushing or inspiring. I’ve also been on a jury that had to decide whether to impose the death penalty. Before we were selected, the testimony from the potential juror pool on their beliefs about crime and punishment said more about personal character than you’re likely to hear anywhere else.

The defendant in this case had allegedly killed his confederate in a drug deal, along with several potential witnesses who were unlucky enough to be there too when it all went down. The prosecutors thought they were hotshots. The accused was a 20-something who seemed impossibly blasé about being there. Whose facts would we believe—whose story—with this many lives in the balance?

Every trial is not a murder trial, but it’s also true that the rest of our lives rarely approach the influential place where jurors go to work everyday. As a juror, you’re helping to decide how one storyline in your community draws to its conclusion. For a little of your time, you become a character in the narrative, part of its truth as well as its consequences.

David Griesing is currently finishing his first book about values and work. He’s lived here in the Falls for more than 30 years.

 

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1 Comment

  1. David Griesing

    Shortly after a version of this piece appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer last month, the following letter to the editor was submitted in response. Among other things, it includes contact information for anyone interested in sharing their views with the Jury Commissioner:

    The commentary, “On jury duty, a position of influence” (March 12) offered compelling reasons for people to show up and perform their civic duty. Of particular note was the gratification of connecting with and learning from other citizens while engaged in an act that is the essence of a participatory democracy.

    But what can be done to communicate the shared benefits of jury service and its critical importance to those who fail to show up?

    Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas has formed a blue-ribbon Juror Participation Initiative Committee to recommend ways to increase the number of potential jurors who respond to their summons. It is looking at impediments including childcare, financial strain, apathy, and fear.

    The court’s Jury Commission has focused on convenience and technology. In 2014, a new civil jury room was built in City Hall. A new procedure will enable jurors to respond to their summons and questionnaire online, where they can also receive alerts about court closings and juror call-offs. And coffee and cake is once again being provided.

    The committee welcomes ideas on ways to improve the juror experience and increase participation. Please email ideas and suggestions to Jury Commissioner Daniel Rendine at daniel.rendine@courts.phila.gov.

    |Jacqueline F. Allen, administrative judge, Trial Division, Court of Common Pleas; Sheila Woods-Skipper, president judge, Court of Common Pleas; and Lynn A. Marks, chair, Juror Participation Initiative, Philadelphia

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