Last week I served as a juror on a civil trial in our community. It was a fascinating experience which prompted me to ask myself this important civics question:
What the heck were our Founding Father’s thinking?
I’ve always admired the American system of justice, even though like everyone else in our great country, I have no idea how it actually works. I know that judges, for some strange reason, are required to wear their school graduation robes to work, and I know that our nation’s most famous lawyer, Perry Mason, never lost a case, but otherwise the goings-on down at the courthouse seem mysterious and, quite frankly, boring. I also know from watching TV that jurors are selected to listen silently to the evidence while crafty lawyers force witnesses to confess to murders they didn’t even commit. I assumed that these jurors had to pass a hard test and prove to the court that they are qualified. But guess what? That’s not what happens at all. To my amazement, I discovered that juries consist of random individuals whose only qualification is that they managed to drive themselves to the courthouse. They need know nothing about the law. Yes, that’s correct. People like me, or worse yet, people like you, are given the power to decide verdicts, award money and assess punishments.
As jaw-dropping as that sounds, I discovered something even more amazing. Somehow, it all works.
At the beginning of the week, as the twelve of us settled into the jury box and began listening to the evidence presented by the litigant’s attorneys and their witnesses, I was convinced that a dozen indiscriminate strangers had as much chance of agreeing on an outcome as a kindergarten class agreeing on who gets the first scoop of ice cream. And even if we did agree, how could our decision possibly be “right”? We all seemed to have little in common except our status as jurors. All ages, various races, levels of education and both sexes (as well as one who’s gender was ambiguously undefined) were represented. I imagined that we would all agree on only one thing: this was a colossal mistake.
The trial proceeded and several days later there we were, twelve strangers, having listened to lawyers and witnesses for the better part of a week, being ushered into the jury deliberation room with a charge from the judge that we were to arrive at a unanimous decision on behalf of one side or the other in this judicial matter. We were to review the evidence, discuss the merits, and at the end of these activities we were to reach a verdict that would alter the lives of the litigants waiting in the courtroom. We were not to leave the room, except for the occasional potty break, until this task was completed. To make matters worse, we must all agree on a monetary value as well, or none at all.
The only way we’ll reach all of these decisions is if we use the “rock-paper-scissors” method, I told myself as we began our deliberations.
Then something interesting happened. We began to recognize each other. Not in the usual sense of “hey, didn’t we meet at our kid’s softball game last month” kind of recognition. Differently, it was a recognition of our common values, the things we share as members of a mutual society. Ages and races and genders began to dissolve into the background as we went over the mounds of documents and went round the table, one by one, offering our impressions and seeking validation of our conclusions. As the day progressed, our disagreements became far less important than our common values of fairness, justice and a sense of right-and-wrong. And more surprisingly, everyone listened, more or less, to everyone else.
By the end of the morning we had reached a compromise that was agreeable to all and shortly thereafter, the hardest part – how much money was an appropriate settlement – seemed only like a task, not an impossibility. In the end, it was unanimous – not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but unanimous nevertheless - and we entered the courtroom to announce our verdict. The judge thanked us for our service and we were dismissed.
As we made our way out of the courthouse, we weren’t quite friends, but we weren’t quite strangers. We were….well… fellow citizens. Walking together to the parking lot no one mentioned it outright, but we all knew in our own way that we had done something quite amazing.
“It was nice to meet you.”
“We did a good job.”
“See you ‘round.”
One by one we exited the parking lot, disappearing into the greater society from where we were summoned. And the jury was no more. I guess those Founding Fathers knew what they were doing after all.