| The Importance of Jury Duty
By Jeff Adachi Sep 02, 2009
Last November, millions of people across the nation stood in agonizingly long lines to exercise their right to vote for the presidential candidate of their choice. The result would have been pandemonium had anyone dared interfere with that right. After all, voting is a form of civic participation that is a cornerstone of our democracy.
So is another equally important civic duty of ours – jury service. However, many people called upon to fulfill this civic responsibility will barely open their jury summons before they begin devising ways to get exempted from jury service.
The privilege of jury service is viewed by many American citizens as burdensome and inconvenient. Countless websites are dedicated to instructing people on how they can potentially “get out” of jury duty. Yet, jury service is probably the most important political right that any citizen of this country can exercise.
In a criminal trial, the facts of a case are presented to a jury. Jurors deliberate and apply the law to members of their community. Each juror has a vote and every vote counts. In this sense, jury service is a form of direct governance that represents democracy in its purest form – where right and wrong is decided and each vote affects a real life outcome.
Jurors are trusted to guarantee the life and liberty of their fellow citizens against arbitrary or abusive government actions. They also serve to ensure that the conscience of the community is reflected in the enforcement of the law.
For example, the end of Prohibition was hastened by juries that refused to convict defendants charged under liquor laws. Prior to the Civil War, juries in northern states effectively nullified federal Fugitive Slave Laws by refusing to convict abolitionists who aided escaping slaves.
Deprivation of trial by jury was one of the grievances that led American colonists to revolt against the British. As a result, both the Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights and Article III of the U.S. Constitution affirm that anyone charged with committing a serious offense has the right to be tried by an impartial jury.
However, like the right to vote, the right to a jury trial and the right to be considered for jury service were not always universally enjoyed.
For decades after women won the right to vote in 1920, states actively discouraged women from jury service. The right of women to sit as jurors was not fully realized until 1975, when in Taylor v. Louisiana the Supreme Court held that “it is no longer tenable to hold that women as a class may be excluded [from jury service] or given automatic exemptions based solely on sex.”
Historically, African Americans were systematically excluded from juries. This changed in 1986 when, in Baston v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court held that excluding a person from a jury on the basis of race not only deprives the accused of important rights during a trial, but also unconstitutionally discriminates against the excluded juror.
The success of the trial by jury system, and thus the distribution of justice and integrity of the democratic process, depends on the participation and attitudes of all citizens.
So, the next time you get your jury summons in the mail, consider this: The power of a democratic government comes from its people. The will of the people is expressed through votes – both at the poll and in the jury box. For centuries, people fought for the right to be recognized as equal citizens, with the same political right to serve on a jury and participate in the democratic process. Like the vote that you cast in this last historic election, jury service is a right and a privilege that should be cherished.
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