Jury is More Than a Duty — It’s Civics in Action
How jury duty is a microcosm of our democracy
by Nora Howe, New York Senior Program Associate
Everyone assured me that I wouldn’t be picked. Or groaned when I told them I’d been summoned. When I walked to Brooklyn Superior Court with dozens of other New Yorkers reporting for jury duty last month, I imagined missing one day of work, getting some reading done, and promptly returning to my routine.
My own feelings were mixed. As the type of person who compulsively texts friends and family civic duty reminders, I was curious and excited. As a human with a jam packed schedule to rearrange and no way to invent extra hours in the day, I was also a little stressed.
Sitting down in the windowless waiting room (isn’t that always the case?), we were given firm instructions — phones off, sit, don’t stand, no coffee or snacking, listen for your number and wait your turn — by a court officer who clearly had experience wrangling unruly jurors. People were dismissed for vacations, language proficiency, and childcare needs. But, just a few minutes later, my name was called.
While 32 million Americans get summoned for jury duty every year, only 8 million of them actually report. More than half of Americans, when surveyed, said that if called to a jury they would try to be dismissed or hope to be. Similarly, only about half of millennials, think that jury duty is part of “what it means to be a good citizen.” The same Pew Research study showed that people who did not graduate from high school are particularly likely to not see jury duty as a good part of citizenship.
There are some very concrete reasons that people feel skeptical. Like the rest of our democracy, our jury system is far from perfect. Studies show there continues to be a great deal of racial bias involved in the selection process. Workplaces over a certain size are required to provide compensation for jury duty, but the amount is small — in New York State, it’s at least 40 dollars a day — resulting in lower wage workers being less likely to be able to participate.
In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that a trial jury “places the real direction of society in the hands of the governed… and not in that of the government.” Like in voting and elections, citizens become decision-makers. Each person’s voice is intended to be weighted equally, no matter background, occupation, age or gender. And, even more unique, jurors are not just voting but consensus building — persuading peers to come to a mutually agreed upon outcome. It’s an opportunity to learn about process and gain vital skills in a way that, as de Tocqueville wrote, “increase[s] the natural intelligence of a people.”
The jury that I ultimately served on included a teacher, a nurse, a retired minister, and a real estate agent. Two of the group had immigrated to the U.S. as young adults, and most had grown up in New York City. Most of our time together was spent in a waiting room — sometimes we lamented the legal process, but mostly we just talked. In the courtroom, the group listened intently and with curiosity to the case at hand. Unlike most of life, spent in homogeneity, it was time connecting with, and making decisions alongside, neighbors and community members with different experiences and opinions.
It quickly became clear that jury duty mimics more in civic life than voting. It’s a microideal of the civic engagement skills and practices we strive to integrate in everyday life, ones we develop ideally, in part, in civics class. In Generation Citizen Action Civics classes, students of different backgrounds share community issues they’re passionate about and come to consensus on one they’ll collectively tackle for the rest of the semester. Students are tasked with using both personal experiences and research to persuade their peers, so communication skills and critical-thinking are key. Sometimes voices get raised (just a little). Often people disagree. It’s not easy work, but it’s a roadmap to lifelong civic engagement in our 21st century democracy.
Our society should be one where adults and young people alike participate within — even revel in — these vital, complex learning and deliberation processes, whether developing them in the classroom or practicing them in the courtroom.
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.