If there’s one thing the hipsterisation of US culture has done, it’s create a world where acting jaded about anything and everything is supposed to make you look extra cool. That extends, of course, to civic duty, and nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to jury duty, the thing everyone seems to love to hate. Receiving a jury summons is treated on par with being summoned to the underworld, whether it’s pop culture or real life, and people make a huge production out of discussing how much they hate jury service, and revealing the great lengths they’ll take to avoid it.
I’ve never really understood this, and possibly this is because I am a complete weirdo. I spent a large chunk of my childhood in a house used as a polling place, after all, so it’s clear that I was indoctrinated into the ways of civic duty from a young age. I was jealous of adults who got to vote and do jury service; to me these things seemed exciting and thrilling, and I couldn’t wait to be a grownup myself, so I could give back to my community and society by participating in these same social rituals. I never understood why people moaned and groaned over elections and jury service like they were the end of the world.
In 2004, my commitment was put to the test when I was called as part of the juror pool for a murder trial. I had to travel back and forth between Fort Bragg and Ukiah for two months, and spent most of my time in the jury room waiting for voir dire. My time in court was short; I was struck from the prospective juror pool fairly quickly once attorneys started asking me questions and I started answering them. It was still a very instructive and fascinating experience, and it wasn’t one I resented.
I was the odd one out in the jury room, though, where everyone else complained on a regular basis about how long everything was taking. I had some advantages over my peers; I was single, without any commitments at home. I didn’t need to scramble for child care, and my employers were very accommodating, not just meeting their legal obligation to not discriminate against me for serving on a jury, but making sure I got hours when I could and supporting me when I had to take strings of days off to head over to Ukiah. I had low expenses at the time, and thus the minimal compensation offered to jurors wasn’t a huge hardship for me.
These things were definitely factors in why some of the people there were angry to be called, and I don’t blame them. Civic duty can be a huge hardship when you’re not provided with anything even vaguely approaching appropriate compensation for your time; if you’re a single parent, for example, jury service that lasts for several days, let alone weeks or months, can be an extreme problem unless you have a very good support network. Likewise if you have high expenses and you’re missing numerous days of work to show up in court for your service. Which is why hardship exclusions are permitted, to allow jurors who would experience legitimate problems associated with their service to be excused from the trial to serve again another day.
Because the goal of civic duty is not actually to torment citizens in some sort of deeply twisted and macabre ritual, but to uphold some of the basic principles that underlie our society. In theory, this is supposed to be a democracy, and in theory, the legal system is supposed to provide a fair shake to all who come before it. In fact, neither of these things is true, but not being a fully engaged citizen isn’t going to lead to functional social changes. When you don’t vote, when you don’t show up for jury service, when you indicate that you’re not willing to participate in society, you’re not doing much to change the culture around you.
After all, if you don’t show up for jury service on my trial, why should I show up for yours? If attorneys are faced with a limited pool of prospective jurors drawn from the handful of people who bothered to obey the summons, how are they supposed to select a true jury of the accused’s peers? There’s a reason some judges get cranky and start churning out bench warrants to compel jurors to show up, and it’s not because they’re vindictive sadists who want to punish people. It’s because they’re frustrated by the lack of interest in serving, and they want to create real stakes for people who are thinking of skipping out on jury duty. It’s because they want to send a message that civic duty is not optional.
This is something many people in the US seem to struggle with; this is a very individualistic society where people are very determined to be independent at all costs. What they don’t seem to realise is that individualism has its own costs, and that a truly functional collective society also requires some sacrifices. I’m not talking about austerity to prop up rich corporations, here. I’m talking about heading to the polls on election day, and about opening a jury summons and going ‘well, okay then’ instead of immediately trying to figure out how to get out of it.
Maybe I’m just naive, or I have too much time on my hands, or perhaps I really am desperate to avoid these edits I’m supposed to be working on, but I actually like the idea of civic duty, and I don’t view a jury summons with dread or rage. It’s just another part of my life, and one of the ways in which I can give back to my community, in the hopes of doing my very small part to build a more just and fair society.