Wednesday, October 29th, 2008
As we approach election season and participation in one of our great civic duties, I am prompted to reflect on another civic duty, jury duty to be precise. Most people view this as an imposition. Practically speaking, I’m inclined to agree. But I find that when I actually end up going, not only do I enjoy myself, I come away with my faith in America stronger than ever.
There’s a vast literature on juries and their role in a republican system. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote extensively on it, for example. But the aspects that stands out for me personally are the diverse slice of the community you end up cooling your heels with all day and the relationships that develop with them.
I’ve been on jury duty in places ranging from Bloomington to Chicago. I’ve been in jury pools with truck drivers, preachers, country good-ol’-boys, students, black grandmothers, immigrant citizens, soccer moms, construction workers, and much, much more. I’m always amazed by all the types of people you serve with. People who live in the same city as me, but with whom I would rarely interact with. Like most people, I tend to stay in the same social circle of people who are broadly similar to me. I live in a very diverse neighborhood, but still my day to day interactions tend to be with people who have a not dissimilar profile in many respects.
Nevertheless, I find that despite all the different people who come together, in a group that would rarely if ever be assembled elsewhere, a type of rough camaraderie always develops. Nobody wants to be the schmuck stuck on the jury for a three week trial. And everybody knows that nobody wants it. It creates an instant commonality and bond between people, bringing them together. It shows me that we’re not all so different after all, despite how different we might seem.
What’s more, I find myself thinking that if I were ever to find myself on trial, these are people I believe would give me a fair shake. Like everyone, I curse the “runaway juries” who award millions to people who spill coffee on themselves. But with so many trials out there, clearly this must be the exception. I’ve never seen any reason to believe that the groups of people I’ve sat with on jury duty would be anything other than a fine group of people to judge a case.
So in a sense I think that in addition to the purely practical aspects of jury duty, there’s a function of community building as well, of bringing together everyone for a shared experience where there is actually lots of personal interaction. That’s what makes it different from say a sporting event. We can all cheer for the same team, but does that mean anything if we never talk to each other? But when 50 of you are stuck in a room all day with nothing better to do but talk, you get a different quality of experience.
That’s why I think jury duty is so important. It creates bonds across the diverse groups of our community, reinforces everything that we have in common, and gives us reasons to have faith in the quality of the people in our city. In an era where cities are more diverse than ever, and indeed where attracting diverse talent is key to creating civic success, institutions like jury duty that serve as “civic glue” are more important than ever.