On a recent podcast with Mona Charen, I was talking about jury duty — singing the praises of it, mainly. I’d like to sing those verses in this column. Plus several more. (Verses, that is, not columns.)
I was on jury duty last week, and the judge in a case said something interesting. He said, “Now that the draft is over, the only thing we’re required to do is jury duty. That and pay taxes.” I sat there in my pew — or whatever you call the benches in a courtroom — trying to contradict this amazing statement. I couldn’t. Later, I thought some more, trying to contradict it.
Is jury duty our only civic obligation, aside from paying taxes (if you want to count that)? I suppose so.
You could say voting — but you don’t have to do that. Jury duty, you have to do. It sustains this system we all appreciate (or should appreciate).
Years ago, my grandmother was called to jury duty in her Michigan town. She was balking. It was such an inconvenient time. The judge — whom she knew — said, “Suppose you were the defendant in a case. You’d be innocent, of course. Wouldn’t you want the best people available on your jury? Conscientious people, who did not want to shirk their duty?”
That made her see jury service in a different light. (I wonder how many people think of themselves as defendants, or potential defendants.)
Rick Brookhiser shared something with me. Our late colleague Joe Sobran had a plan for getting out of being impaneled on a jury. The plan went like this: He’d ask, “Are citizens summoned for jury duty randomly?” Yes, would come the answer. He’d then say, “But I understand a different process is used for choosing defendants.”
Another colleague of mine said to me, “I always leaf through a copy of Guns & Ammo.” For some reason, this stays the hands of the attorneys.
As he questioned us jurors — potential jurors — the judge read off a list of people involved in the case. He asked us whether we knew any of them. And I had this thought:
“It’s one thing to ask such a question here in New York County,” i.e., Manhattan. (The population is about 1.6 million.) “But what about a small town? Surely you’d know someone, if not everyone.”
I’ll have to ask judicial friends about this . . .
A statistician, a probabilities expert, would no doubt have a comment on this: In a jury pool of 75, I knew two other people. In Manhattan, remember. Normal? Expected?
The jury system, as everyone knows, is very, very democratic. In the pool of which I was part, there were Upper East Side ladies and Harlem janitors. I’m not reaching for metaphors, all writer-like. This was literally true. Where else but jury duty would they rub shoulders, would they work together, as equals?