We Americans are proud of our rights – and (forgive the pun) rightfully so! The unique balance between governmental power and individual freedoms outlined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights has survived many challenges, and adapted to significant changes in culture over the many years of this Republic.
A thought struck me the other day. Many of our so-called individual rights, are just that: individual. That is, I don’t need anyone else to do anything for me to exercise my rights. If I wish to speak my mind under the auspices of the First Amendment, I can, regardless of if anyone listens to me or agrees. If I want to own a firearm as authorized by the Second Amendment, I can as well.
Enshrined in Bill of Rights is another precious individual right: the right to a trial by jury which is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. But let’s think a bit deeper about just what that right demands. If I, as someone accused of a crime, choose to exercise my right to a jury trial, that presupposes that there is a jury to be had. Unlike speaking your mind freely, or holding onto a family heirloom firearm, my choice to exercise this particular right depends on YOU showing up for the jury summons. Without YOU, my right is nullified.
A county or district clerk may send out four or five hundred jury summons just so they can get a jury pool of one-hundred and fifty actual warm bodies to show up on a Monday morning. That’s enough….but it’s not GOOD ENOUGH. Yes, just like with funding drives for public television, there are usually “enough” people who pitch in to keep things muddling along at a basic level, but thats it. We can and should do better.
Now I know that a “jury of my peers” doesn’t mean an exact duplication of folks my same age, gender, ethnicity, and station in life. But when only a fraction of the citizenry summoned bother to appear, what does that really say about how much we value the rights we (supposedly) hold so precious? A defendant should have a true cross-section of the community to form his or her jury panel from. And the State should as well. If the citizenry is going to be the voice of the county or state on issues of crime and punishment, shouldn’t the jury panel ideally be a true representative sample, instead of simply a group made up of those whose sense of civic duty outweighs their sense of “But I’m too busy”?
Its cliché these days to say that one honors the military veterans “who fought and died for our freedoms”. But when one of our fellow Americans chooses to exercise one of those freedoms, their freedom to choose a jury trial, we more often than not will not respond to that jury summons, which goes right to the trash. Talk is cheap. Action speaks louder than words. When the jury call comes, answer it. It’s the American thing to do.