It was the morning of the second day of deliberations when it became clear there was one hold-out left. We had gotten the case the previous afternoon. After a disorganized discussion, our first vote was 10-2 to convict the defendant as charged. After a night’s rest, the vote became 11-1. That one vote started to dig in that morning as many in the jury room began to resent the opposition position. The juror’s principles looked like stubbornness. As the debate simmered down, it was clear a passionless conversation focused on what we were instructed to do and how to do it was going to clear the way to find common ground. Just before lunchtime we had our verdict. The system worked.
In the ongoing legislate-by-deadline-or-else arrangement in Washington, D.C. Congress and President Obama could learn a lot by reminding themselves of why the trial-by-jury system remains the best and most fair justice developed by humankind.
First, our legislative leaders flirted with violating the debt ceiling in the summer of 2012. Then it was after midnight on New Year’s Eve before there was a reluctant deal on taxes. That was followed by ignoring the much-feared sequestration to put in motion government spending cuts. And now the federal government is threatened with a full shutdown if there’s no spending blueprint in place by March 27. If a jury had acted with such disregard and disrespect toward their purpose, a judge would have declared a mistrial, sent everyone home and started again.
I’m no lawyer. I’m just a citizen who served his civic duty. And I see several lessons for Congress and the president from those of us chosen to apply justice.
Our jury selection began with 50 of us herded into a Miami-Dade County criminal courtroom. We didn’t know the particulars of the case but it we knew to take it seriously. The selection was a slow process. Each of us were questioned by the prosecutor. I was asked directly if I wanted to serve on the jury. I declared simply, “No.” What I wanted didn’t mattered. We were there for a higher purpose than ourselves. We were asked if we had any experience with the criminal justice system. We were asked if we had any strong opinions about police work. What did we think about the Fifth Amendment? (double jeopardy, self-incrimination, i.e., defendants not having to testify against themselves) Can we follow directions? Ultimately, we were asked if we could follow the law.
Congress and the president make the same tax and spending rules they wind up ignoring, breaking or otherwise bending. We send them to legislate but then don’t hold them terribly accountable when they fail to do so. Frequently, the job of legislating resembles obstruction not cooperation. Pet projects, partisanship and access have replaced common sense, collaboration and equal opportunity.
By day two there were 14 of us in the jury box. Before the first day of testimony was over that would be whittled down to 12. The court doesn’t wait for a request of forgiveness from a juror who broke the rules. This is serious business that demands serious people willing to commit themselves to fulfilling their obligations.
Agree on the goal
Before we were seated the judge impressed on us our duty as jurors. We had a job to do. We swore to do it to the best of our ability. Listen to the evidence. Put aside any prejudice. Appraise the truthfulness of witnesses. Follow the law. Make a decision. When we stood and raised our right hands to be sworn in, we committed ourselves to the process. Our being in the jury box was an outward display of our belief in the system. We were not opinionated observers. We were now participants who wanted to do our best to come to an equitable conclusion for all those involved.