December 08, 2012
Jury Duty. Two words that place fear into the hearts of the best of us. Well, maybe that is a bit strong. Yet, isn’t amazing, most everyone who is called for jury duty has a story. From getting time off to being questioned by the judge to the time of trial, these stories, told with fear, trembling, and humor, often speak to an individual’s questioning of moral, ethical, and religious issues because they find themselves facing an individual(s) who often looks like themselves, but is in a time of trial and faces the real possibility of prison. Funny, but in its own weird way, jury duty seems to get many of us to go much deeper and do a bit of self-reflection we would never chance within the walls of, say, a church, a synagogue, or a mosque.
Jury Duty. Okay, so my turn came around a few weeks ago. I had hardly opened the mailbox—yep we still have the traditional mailbox on the side of the road, you’ve gotta wonder, with all the different ways of communication we have these days, just how much longer this generational icon is going to be around?—when the notice with JURY DUTY stamped across the front seemed to jump from the box into my hands. “It can’t be,” I thought. “Didn’t I just do this?” It turns out—I went straight home and looked it up on my computer—the last date they (the County Clerk) called me for Jury Duty was exactly one year and one month since the last time I sat in a courtroom answering questions (some I’d prefer not answering) posed by a judge. Somewhere in the summons there was a note saying they develop the Jury Duty list from voter’s registration and driver’s licenses. Really? In all of Yakima County there are only enough people that your Jury Duty card comes up every year and one month? I doubt it. But, then, my doubt doesn’t go far to dissuade the County Clerk, so I did what any self-respecting citizen does under the threat of fine and/or jail time; I showed up at the courthouse at the appointed time!
Funny thing, you run through a lot of stuff through your head in a year and a month. Last time, I didn’t make past the judge’s initial juror questions, one question in particular. In a year and a month I gave that question a fair amount of thought, and I had my doubts, as I entered the courthouse that this time around it would turn out any different.
Last time, we were about a third of the way through the judge’s questions when the question came up. Of course, I didn’t know that until this time when the question came up after two and a half hours and the judge said this would be the last question. In both cases, it seems the question is one that seldom is questioned. For both times, once the judge raises the question, the pause allowing time for potential jurors to raise their hand because they had an issue with the question was not nearly as long as with the other questions. Fair enough, for both times the only hand that went up after the judge introduced the question was mine. And each time it appeared that raising my hand surprised the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney. Additionally, the courtrooms tenor changed in a way that made it feel that I was no longer bald but rather a skinhead.
I continue to ponder the question weeks later—a year and two months after I first answered it, because I’d like to see hands raised. Sure, probably narcissistic of me, but I’d like to think more folk think like me! The dark reality may be though, I’m just a bit out of wack and my rationale is wanting! Regardless, after two rounds with two different judges, I’ve cut myself a little slack and figure a little preoccupation with the question is a good thing. After all, what if round three comes up someday?
The job of a juror is to find the facts of the case. The job of the judge is to give the law of the case.
The Question went something like this, “Your role as jurors is to determine the facts of the case based on what is presented to you. As the judge I will determine the law which applies to this case and inform you, the jury, about it. Are there any of you who cannot uphold the law as it is given to you?”
There is a unique feeling that bubbles up when yours is the only hand raised in the courtroom.
The ensuing dialogue went something like this…
Judge: You feel you cannot uphold the law?
Me: Well, I the answer is not that easy. We need to have a conversation to flesh this out.
Judge: Yes, go ahead.
Me: Chances are, I am not going to have a problem with the law as you give it to us. However, I am well aware in the past we have had laws, such as “Sundown Laws” and “Segregation Laws” that today we know as unjust laws. While I believe you bring a much greater awareness of the law into the room than I, I must allow my own critical thinking to engage about the law in light of the reality that our laws are not always just.
Judge: While I thank you for believing my education and experience brings much awareness of the law into the room, I do not make the law. Rather, legislators and the people determine the law. I bring that law into the courtroom. As you may know there have been problems with jury nullification. That being, there are instances when a jury has gone beyond deciding the facts of a case and moved to deciding the law, contrary to instructions given by the judge. I believe, we live in a society where the law must be upheld, as the system is designed, for without the law there can only be anarchy. The law and the legal system is that which gives structure and stability to our society. And it is that Law which must be upheld.
Me: Yes, I understand we live within a societal structure that is informed by the law. And I believe chances are, in this case or any other, that my having the insight to understand a law as unjust is slim. Any more than my White grandfather could have understood the segregation laws of his day being unjust; it is unlikely I am going to recognize a law as unjust today due to the societal lenses I wear. However, I believe we should bring the whole of ourselves to a decision that may determine guilt, know laws have and can be unjust, and in doing so, should I determine the law given to me is unjust, then I must reserve the right to be critical about it and bring that voice into the room with my peers.
Judge: So, you are saying that should you feel the law is unjust, even though that is the law I have instructed you to determine the case by, you would not uphold it?
Judge: District Attorney, do you have a problem dismissing this juror? “No.” Defense Attorney, do you have a problem dismissing this juror? “No.” Juror 72, thank you for your candid responses, however, I am dismissing you from this case.
As I walked through the courtroom and out the door the Judge continued: This conversation as in others today is not always easy, but as in the case of every person dismissed today, it is only in your willingness to express your thoughts and convictions that we are better able to provide a system of justice. After lunch we will return at which time the attorneys will ask you questions much as I have done…
The judge’s words, “better able to provide a system of justice,” remain with me today. Societal justice is a fluid thing. Yesterday it was lawful to segregate people of color from White people. Today we have laws that separate undocumented parents from their documented children. Tomorrow’s generation may understand our current immigration laws as abhorrent we understand the segregation and slavery laws of our folks before us. Our “system of justice,” is ever changing and it seems we do well to question when and where our current system serves the mainstream voice of power and causes suffering within the lives of the voiceless and powerless. I never gave jury nullification much thought before, but I wonder, perhaps jury nullification is a reality we should all be aware of, have a conversation about, and wonder if it is appropriate power to know and use.
Maybe, rather than thinking of jury nullification is a person or people’s way to undermine the law, an argument might be made that juror’s have the ability to bring the whole of him or herself to the courtroom, responsibly, and become critical thinkers of the law. Our system of justice surely would look different, but might it become a better system because the people are engaged with the law they govern themselves by? Or perhaps the question we need to ask is, if we were on trial in a time of segregation or a time of slavery, would we want a jury of our peers critically thinking about the law of which they deliberating to convict us by, or do we want them to “just find the facts?”
© David B. Bell 2012