In San Francisco we get summoned for jury duty once a year, like clockwork. It's almost never convenient. Last year I was first in the box on a six week asbestos trial and had to raise a ruckus to get off--because I legitimately had work conflicts. Today I was on a large panel called up for a one week drunk driving case.
One week, the judge promised. Just enough to potentially threaten my catching a plane to Aspen next Friday to go skiing with friends. Should I ask for a deferral if called. It would be granted. I could come back at the end of the month. You just need to say so. But I was tempted to chance the schedule, to serve and pay the $100 change ticket fee if the trial dragged through next Friday. Alas, I never got called in the box, so my resolve was not put to the test.
The video they show you in the jury room in San Francisco is inspiring: about the jury system, the privilege, honor, duty, and importance of serving. Mostly people pay attention. Only a few continue to work on their computers and phones. It makes an impression. We don't get confronted with our civic duties quite like this anywhere else. Not about voting, not about obeying stop signs on our bicycles, not about contributing to society with our taxes. Jury duty is one of the few places where the state has our captive attention. It's important that they make the most of it, and by and large they do.
When it comes to voting I spend quite a bit of time studying the voter information, trying to understand the different positions and issues, and tell my friends about it. But the state is not involved. It's a passive relationship. The state spends money, and good people devote hours putting together those voter guides. But it's not face to face. The guide arrives in the mail and it may be read or not. We may vote, or not. In our last election 64 percent of eligible voters did not bother.
On jury duty they have us captive. We can't just not bother. We have to explain ourselves. I treasure that.
Many lie, make excuses, tell stories, exaggerate, say what they think will get them off. Anything not to be stuck for a week listening to prosecution and defense of this fairly inconsequential matter. What's such a big deal about a drunk driving conviction?
Well, it depends. This defendant may have had a bunch to drink before he got behind the wheel. On the other hand, he is Latino. Maybe the cop was a racist SOB and took a dislike. We won't know unless we stick around to hear the story.
The glorious thing about our trial and jury system is that this defendant gets to tell his story, and the playing field in the courtroom is pretty even. We have cops and the resources of the system on the one hand, but presumption of innocence and burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt on the other side. Two young attorneys represented the state and defendant today. The public defender had the upper hand--she is likable, well spoken, smooth. The prosecutor less so. The judge kept a close reign on the proceedings. The jury selection moved along without too much repetition or drag. There was some gentle education by counsel and judge on burden of proof, difference between driving after a couple drinks and driving impaired, the difference between driving impaired and falling down drunk. The people who really don't want to be there and those with an apparent bias were weeded out. A jury was selected in an afternoon. An efficient process.
Our criminal justice system is broken. There is not enough funding. Prosecutors have too much discretion in a determinative sentencing world. Defendants almost never have their day in court because the system is stacked in a way where even innocent people wind up pleading guilty. But the jury remains one of the few checkpoints that we as citizens have on the abuses of the state. If we don't serve we collectively loose a lot.
Grand juries, like those in Ferguson and New York of recent infamy, matter. Jury duty matters.
In the end a just and equitable society depends on us. We should never forget it.