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.
Listen to the rhetoric from Capitol Hill and the White House and you will hear no agreement on what is to be accomplished. Republicans beat the drum on reducing federal spending while crowing about needing to stimulate the economy. Democrats warn loudly about hurting the nascent economic recovery with cuts in government spending while crowing about the unfairness of the tax code.
House Republicans contend taxes are a settled matter. “He already got his tax increase,” Republican Rep. Martha Roy of Alabama told The New York Times before the sequester deadline passed, referring to President Obama. The Heritage Foundation, led by former South Carolina GOP Senator Jim DeMint, puts the number of tax hikes enacted this year at 13. Senate Democrats, in their first budget plan since 2009, proposed to raise taxes almost $1 trillion over the next decade while cutting spending by roughly the same.
Both sides of the aisle have talked about wanting a “grand bargain.” Presumably that would comprehensively reform the tax code while addressing the unsustainable path of spending on Medicare and Social Security. That’s a noble goal. If that’s truly the objective, it requires the parties to hunt for common ground not to stand their ground.
Working in journalism I have a healthy respect for language. I realize others don’t. In a legislative body taxes become revenue enhancers. (Who would be against enhancing revenues?) Spending is stimulus. (Stimulus is good, right?) Cuts are growth decreases. Increases are the expiration of previous decreases. (George Orwell would be proud of those last two.) When obscured by such double talk it’s no wonder there’s no room for compromise.
By hour number four of our deliberations, we had honed our debate to the meaning of reasonable doubt. Any Law and Order fan knows the phrase but now it was up to the 12 of us to apply it to the evidence. This was no thought experiment. We had to have the self-awareness to decide for ourselves if the evidence presented to us rose above that threshold as defined in the judge’s instructions. It would be unreasonable to simply think up a scenario to explain away the evidence. We read and re-read the reasonable doubt definition as a group and privately. We didn’t debate what it was. We debated whether the evidence we heard fulfilled that condition.
Serving on a jury or making law aren’t easy tasks. They require hard work. You have to communicate clearly, listen carefully, weigh the evidence without prejudice and judge wisely. It would serve our elected leaders to remember that.