For many of us slogging through the daily grind, there is nothing more groan-inducing than finding a notice for jury duty in the mailbox. To most of us it signifies the imminent and unwanted disruption of work, studies or already-limited leisure time. A day spent at the Department of Motor Vehicles seems more enticing.
As a trial court judge I am constantly approached by family and friends askinig how to “get out of jury service.” My standard reply, unless someone is over 70 years old, an expectant mother or the sole caregiver for a physically or mentally challenged person, is two words: You don’t.
Why would good citizens try so desperately to walk away from the chance to ensure that justice is done and to perform the only duty required of an American?
Jury-service avoidance is a real problem, one that has driven some judges to desperate measures. In 2014, an exasperated Chicago jurist imposed an unusual sanction on a citizen for avoiding jury service. Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. sentenced a wayward juror to stand on the sidewalk for two days wearing a sign saying, “I failed to appear for jury duty.” The judge effectively brought back the puritan “stocks” and used the incident to send a message to the community. Frankly, our collective conscience should be the “mental stocks” that compel us all to welcome the call to jury service.
The English poet John Donne wrote that, “Injustice diminishes me … because I am involved in mankind.” Despite our many differences on religion, politics and social issues, we are all mutually invested in the desire to vanquish injustice, and we all suffer when justice fails. Our nation’s founders were anti-authoritarians who renounced blind acceptance of authority in general, and government in particular. In their wisdom they knew better than to trust the ultimate decisions in civil and criminal cases to judges, politicians, lawyers or appointed experts. That sacred task, the pursuit of justice for all, is assigned to the people, who are sworn to seek and find the truth from the clash of opposing parties and interests.
Jury service means sacrifice. Miami’s civil courthouse, built nearly 100 years ago, is in deplorable condition. Jurors arrive having steeled themselves for a day of waiting patiently in the jury assembly room before enduring the tedious process of questioning at the hands of the judge and lawyers, and then, at last, hearing the facts of a case and rendering a decision. For their trouble they get inadequate seating, inadequate parking, inadequate bathrooms and outdated and undersized courtrooms. Plus, they’ll have to go elsewhere to find a decent cup of coffee.
But the rewards of serving on a jury and ensuring that justice prevails in a courtroom are immeasurable. Jurors represent protection, a bulwark against powerful societal interests and a sometimes rapacious government, none of whom has a monopoly on the truth. And with today’s all-volunteer military, it is the only significant sacrifice, other than taxation, that our country still asks of us as citizens.
The next time that notice comes in the mail, don’t think of it as an imposition. Don’t call or text me to ask how to get out of it. Consider it an opportunity to be soldier in the cause of justice.
And, for God’s sake, bring your own coffee.
John Schlesinger is a judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County.