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Jury duty

Mindy Todd

A white postcard showed up in the mail the other day. I had been summoned to Barnstable Superior Court – for jury duty.

My immediate response? Great! Hope I can do it!

To those who bemoan and dodge jury duty -- a sentiment I hear a lot – but still claim to believe in democracy, I have to say that either you don’t understand democratic principles, or you’re a hypocrite.

A kinder way to put it is with a question:

Which is more important for a free and fair society, the ballot box or the jury box?

My answer:

The jury box, no doubt.

The right to a trial by “peers” who must deliver a unanimous guilty verdict before any “authority” can take away freedom, is the greatest single democratic protection ever created. It’s way more powerful than an AK-47, and it’s more influential than marking a ballot every few years.

The roots of trial by jury go back to the Magna Carta in England more than 800 years ago, created by a lordly class to exert leverage over a king.

Over time protections expanded; by the American Revolution juries were seen as the crucial block against Red Coats and then our own new government carting people away for arbitrary, political, personal, or economic reasons.

That a government must first convince a skeptical, hopefully unruly cluster of “ordinary” citizens to indict, punish, put behind bars a fellow human, seems basic, but it’s breathtaking in the way it shifts a society’s balance of power.

It’s the best way ever created to stop that thing called a “police state.”

Ahhh, but the mechanism works best when those who sit in judgement truly are “peers” of those being judged. Across much of our history, if you happened to be a white man with property, that was the case. But not for everyone.

The US Supreme Court didn’t establish the right for women to serve on juries in every state until 1975, if you can believe that, though many states did it earlier. Black Americans got the right on paper a century prior, but that law often was ignored.

Jury trial wasn’t as strong a protection for people who by dint of race, gender, class, religion, who were more less likely to see someone who looked like them sitting in the jury box, who might better relate to them and their situation.

So when a summons shows up in the mailbox, and your first instinct is to begin scheming how to avoid being pushed into the “pool,” you’re saying that your time is so precious, your freedom so well guaranteed, that you will try to shirk this contribution to justice. By excluding yourself, you – not a racist or sexist – warp the idea of “peer.”

Serving on juries in Barnstable, I have felt a profound sense that I was part of something important, and healthy.

I sat with total strangers and we came to a meeting of the minds.

I listened to judges carefully instructing us about what we should and shouldn’t take into account.

I agonized with the responsibility of sitting in judgement of another person while also sitting as a voice for a victim.

I went home emotionally drained, but more compassionate, more human.

We cannot find room for this in our lives? Are we really that spoiled, so far removed from the idea of citizenship?

The word people use is “serve.” It’s a good word. To serve on a jury is to exercise a fundamental right and profound privilege.

So take my advice. Just do it.