A meditation on civic duty
By Sara Fleming
I am in a room filled with a couple hundred people who are legally mandated to be here. The resentment is palpable. We’re trying to avoid thinking about it, or talking to each other. The woman to my left is knitting a sock. The man to my right is pretending to read, but I can see his fingers flick through the phone held up behind the book cover. Outside in the courtyard, people are taking smoke breaks; inside, some just stare into space. Everyone appears bored, apathetic and desperate to leave.
We’re gathered here for what the sing-songy judge on the rows of 1990s-era TV screens calls, “one of our most important and fulfilling civic responsibilities.” And despite my distaste for his blind enthusiasm, I can’t help but agree. Jury duty is one of the most democratic events possible. Despite its benign appearance, jury duty reflects something almost radical considering the state of the country: a trust in the common citizen to make decisions that effectively apply the law. It’s as much of a cornerstone of the judicial branch as voting is to the legislative.
It’s also a civic duty that’s nearly universally dreaded. The court system is well aware that this is one of the last things most citizens want to do. A jury summons is stereotypically received with a sign and a groan, and I won’t pretend that my reaction was any different.
But the informational video’s cheesy guilt trip kind of worked on me. We have very few formal opportunities to exercise our democratic responsibilities. American individualism tell us to go through our everyday lives as consumers, to try to succeed and satisfy our individual desires and needs. When we have the chance to be citizens, we tend to think of it as a hindrance to our personal goals. If I weren’t locked in this room, for example, I’d probably just be laying in the grass on the quad pretending to read—maybe scrolling through a phone, basking in the sunlit fruits of my expensive education.
Yet I’d like to believe that I’m a bit more committed to the principles of democracy than that. After a moment of cognitive dissonance, I decided that this was an opportunity for a moral awakening. I wanted to be on this jury! I wanted to serve the common good! I am not simply a self-interested being—I am a citizen!
My newfound idealism, as you might imagine, didn’t quite permeate through to my potential judicial compatriots. Nothing in the room had changed—jury duty was still a dreary, undesirable pastime for them (as far as I could tell). But why? Why did we find democracy so great in theory but in practice so, well, boring?
I think the answer might lie in the gap between our perceptions and our reality. In an effort to make politics more interesting to the common public, we’ve dramatized it to a fault. Just look at the current presidential cycle. Politics is a spectacle, something we watch from afar. And as it becomes increasingly obvious that big money and party lines largely control the state of affairs, we only become further disconnected. The result is that actual political engagement now feels noticeably un-glamorous, even when it involves interesting and pressing issues.
Those that attended the Democratic caucus in Slocum Commons on March 1 experienced something similar. Don’t get me wrong: unlike jury duty, there was an air of youthful idealism and excitement, especially since this was the first caucus that most of us had attended. But the process of voting—which consisted of turning towards opposite walls designated “Bernie” and “Hillary,” counting off by number, tapping the next person and sitting down—felt more like an elementary school gym class exercise than doing our part to choose the next president of the United States. The caucus was loud, confusing, and disorganized. It was evidence that even national scale politics often dwindle down to the imperfect nature of the local town hall meeting. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of collaborative decision-making, but now, compared to the flashy news sound bites and horserace election coverage, it seems incredibly mundane, even disappointing.
I was determined to be an exception to the rule, to give jury duty the respect it deserved.
Of course, I wasn’t officially on any jury yet. After a few random dismissals, there were still about one hundred people in the room, continuing their knitting and fake reading and isolation, waiting to be called to a judge for questioning to determine who would actually be selected for jury service. These, said the background narrative in my head, are the average citizens of Colorado Springs. The “commonwealth,” upon whom our country’s founding documents nobly bestowed power, didn’t seem all that remarkable. And yet these average Janes and Joes were all summoned here to serve the nation, all on equal footing.
But perhaps not. As I looked around the room again, wondering who would actually be chosen, it occurred to me that some of us had a way higher likelihood of being on that jury, just by virtue of our skin color or our native language. Perhaps jury duty was not the exemplar of democratic ideals after all.
The book first-years read before coming to Colorado College was called “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer for death row inmates. Stevenson details the variety of ways that the court system, despite its emphasis on fairness and objectivity, acts as a model of injustice and discrimination. People of color and those born into lower socioeconomic classes are disproportionately targeted, whether consciously or not, for criminal activity. And once that happens, the system seems determined to punish them for, sometimes extremely minor, individual acts, while completely ignoring systemic issues. Stevenson notes that prosecutors in cases where the defendant was black often use peremptory strikes (the ability to eliminate a certain number of potential jurors without any legal justification) to create all-white juries, which would be much more likely to rule in their favor. The list of horrifying occurrences and biased practices goes on. All of this is predicated on the unsettling notion that those who would commit a crime are somehow incurable deviants that we need to do away with in order to shelter the rest of society.
Jury duty parallels every other cornerstone of democracy in that it’s wrought with failures and inconsistencies. The democratic ideal is that each person gets an equal voice and that the government, systems and processes are influenced equally by all. One would be hard-pressed to argue that we live up to this standard. American society is moreof a collection of deeply engrained biases and a history of oppression masquerading as equality.
As we were herded into the courtroom for the next stage in the process, this question was pressing: Did I still want to participate in that kind of democracy? When we’re asked to do this kind of deliberation, we’re asked to abide by the processes and execute the laws of an imperfect and often unjust state—laws that we may vehemently disagree with. The smiling people in the video made it supposedly clear: The courts seek “reasonable, impartial and fair members of the community” for appointment. They want people that have no preexisting beliefs that would align them to one side or the other, people who are “intellectually undecided” on the matter.
But I do have some political proclivities of my own. I’m confident that I have the capacity to reasonably apply a specific law to a specific scenario, but I don’t know if it’s always right to do so. To take the most extreme example, if I was confronted with a case in which the accused was facing the death penalty (which is still legal in Colorado), I would be caught in a classical ethical dilemma. I disagree with capital punishment on any terms. But if I thought the suspect was guilty of the crime, the court says I’m morally obligated to give him that sentence—or should I lie and attempt to convince the other jurors I thought he was innocent? In some sense, I lean towards the latter. I don’t want to be perpetuating the same old faulty system by unquestioningly carrying out its mandates.
As it turns out, I didn’t have to worry about any confounding moral dilemmas or personal sacrifices. I made the cut for questioning, where I learned I was up for consideration in what sounded like an extremely boring civil case for which testimony, they expected, would take up to five days.
I claimed hardship since I was a student learning on the Block Plan, and the judge promptly dismissed me.
My claim was legitimate to some degree. Missing five days of class probably would have cost me the block. And frankly, I don’t think I would have been able to get excited about participatory democracy by trying to decide whether or not it was the mall’s fault that a woman slipped and fell on some broken tiles. But still, it didn’t quite seem right that I had given up a civic duty for the sake of a “higher” form of education.
As I gathered my things and walked out of the courthouse, down Tejon St. and toward CC, it almost felt symbolic of my larger priorities. Even for all its faults, at least jury duty is there—a real and tangible way of giving power to the people. I had successfully evaded something flawed, dreary and undesired, but this left me with no sense of satisfaction. Where was the democratic gusto that I’d been so enamored with only an hour ago? I was no different than anyone else, giving up a chance to engage as a good citizen for the sake of what really boiled down to my own private interests.
The judge told me he’s been having this problem with CC students for years—they always claim exemptions. He’s never had a CC student serve on a jury.