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Jury Duty

February 23rd, 2004 · No Comments

I was summoned for jury duty today and had the vertiginous experience of reading Discipline and Punish in the Jurors’ Lounge as I waited to hear “Sanchez-499” on the list of names and numbers they were rattling off. I was called down after a few hours, waited perhaps 45 minutes with fellow prospective jurors while counsel conferred in judges chambers, and was finally told (with the others) that I could return to the lounge—our services wouldn’t be required for that case. Though my spirits were buoyed by an orientation video reminding me that the United States is “one of the few countries in the world that repects its citizens enough” to conscript them into the judicial branch… if they can convince the lawyers during voir that they’re total imbeciles.

Anyway, as chance would have it, I was reading the section on the political function of making executions public, which is to say, of making the population at large party to the execution of criminal sentences. Part of the idea (sez Mikey) is to make a spectacular display of the sovereign’s power, of intimidating the public and reminding them of the puissance of the law. But another is the (almost wholly symbolic) validation of that power and its exercise through the tacit participation of the crowd.

I wonder if that doesn’t explain the appeal of the jury trial system (as opposed to magistrate panels or professional jurors). There’s rather obviously little to recommend juries as a fact-finding or truth-seeking body, and in courts where jury nullification is a dirty word, where racial disparities in conviction and sentencing are pretty much universally acknowledged, the traditional rationale of the jury as a check on prosecutorial power starts to sound a bit thin. Moreover, it’s clearly grossly inefficient. At least a hundred people spent their day waiting in the lounge without even making it to the voir stage… and that’s before considering how much sense it makes to have (say) a doctor with an hourly labor value of a hundred dollars devoting her time at $30/day to a task at which she has no special expertise.

But it does add that air of legitimacy—not just to the findings in a particular instance (if anything, it should weaken our confidence in that), but to the legal system as a whole. When some poor bastard is sent up on a nonviolent drug offense or for peddling “obscene” materials, it’s not them doing it to us, but rather our judgement on him—even when jurors are led to believe they have no choice but to follow the law as written in their deliberation, and even if anyone who indicates a principled objection to the law is sure to be pulled in voir dire. Clever stuff. But the system’s saving grace is that, even if you have to be a bit circumspect to do it, one principled person can impede the enforcement of unjust laws. So inconvenient though it would’ve been, I am a little sorry not to have been chosen. Apparently I come due again in 2006… perhaps then (having just read the article at the last link), I’ll know to trade the Foucault for some Tom Clancy.

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