Saturday, July 11, 2009

An Analysis of Jury Duty Resistance

Last week, in my contemplation of the ramifications of not having a military draft, I briefly considered the phenomenon of people's reactions to being called for jury duty. Though I have never been called for jury duty, everyone who I have encountered that has been invariably also expressed a negative sentiment. This has always seemed odd to me, for a number of reasons.

First, our works of fiction across mediums- books, cinema, and especially television, are often built around courtroom drama. Our culture has an inherent interest in the proceedings of the justice system, and often makes the participants in these proceedings into dramatic personas, as evidenced by this listing of 177 fictional lawyers.

It may be prosaic to discuss why courtroom stories are so popular, but it is central to the discussion at hand, since it makes our real life aversion to courtrooms so baffling. One reason "trial stories" lend themselves so well to drama is because the audience is allowed to help build the narrative. The author can place the pieces of the puzzle together organically, so that his or her hand in weaving the tale is inconspicuous. The viewer or reader learns the story and sees the unfolding of the plot in real time right along with the protagonists. Further, the courtroom setting allows for a full range of characterization. Judge, prosecutor, defender, accused, and witnesses are all wonderful archetypes to play with and play off of one another. And the class and culture clash that often results from the intersection of a defendant and the lawyers is also fertile ground for exploration and contemplation. Finally, the rendering of the verdict is a built-in climax, and the reactions to the verdict are built-in "falling action."

Since most people willingly and enthusiastically choose to expose themselves to viewing fictional trials (for some or all of the above reasons), it seems odd that most would be averse to exposing themselves to the real thing.

Furthermore, it is odd to me that people wouldn't welcome the opportunity to shake up their routine. I would think that jury duty could be viewed as a paid vacation, a chance to do something different than the "same old same old," to essentially go on a field trip. Yet I have had college students called for jury duty inform me with actual regret that they would be missing class. I guess on some level I'm flattered that they'd rather go to my class, but as an educator I also lament that they aren't more open to a true learning experience.

And now I will address some possible reasons people shirk from becoming a jurist. Some may say that my view of jury duty as vacation is simplistic, that most of us don't have the means to give up a couple days of our professional lives, that there is simply too much to do. I suppose there are some people who can make this claim, but not nearly as many as actually do make it. If you are in a job that prevents you from taking actual vacation time, I buy it, and a judge probably will too. If not, well, this is a perfect excuse to pawn some work off on someone else.

Some may say that the supposed drama in an actual courtroom pales in comparison to what we read in a John Grisham book. This is undoubtedly true, yet taverns in real life are not nearly as interesting as the ones we read about or watch on TV, yet people still frequent them. Anytime you have people arguing over a tangible point (such as guilt or innocence), and there are stakes involved, there is drama.

Some may argue that they want no part in influencing the fate of a person they have never met. I'd have an easier time believing this if there was no such thing as the Internet, and I haven't witnessed the zealousness with which people render judgements of others they have never encountered face-to-face. And of course, there is strength in numbers. There is a reason there are 12 jurors instead of one.

So to return to the original question: why is there so much resistance to jury duty? Well, the one thing that hasn't been covered in this conversation is the actual "duty" aspect. Forget about the chance to partake in drama, forget about the chance to get a vacation, at its core, the categorical imperative should be enough. We should want to serve on juries for no other reason than simply to ensure that we live in a world where we would also get the benefit of a fair hearing by our peers. But the word "duty" gets in the way. We want to be able to define that word for ourselves, to be able to determine what citizenship means on our own terms.

And this brings us full circle to last week's post. I can't help but wonder if we would be more amenable to jury duty if it wasn't the only time when our government conscripted us.


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