A Rumination on Jury Service

photo by john n. lavender
The Kerr County Courthouse,
Image by Constable John N. Lavender on the Kerr County website,
used for commentary

I was recently called up for jury duty, and not for the first time; I seem to attract jury summonses, having gotten at least one in each place I’ve lived since I got married–and two since moving back to the Texas Hill Country. I don’t mind showing up for it, not least because the alternatives available to me aren’t good ones (I can’t afford a $1,000 fine, for example). Also, I don’t want to be in the position of having to rely on people who don’t want to be there if I am ever in front of a jury, so I try to model the behavior I hope to see. How much it might matter is unclear, but it cannot hurt.

As I sat in the benches waiting to find out whether I would be empaneled, waiting once I was empaneled to find out whether or not I would be selected (I was not), I was reminded of one of the standbys of humanisitic education, that study of the academic humanities helps suit people to such acts of engaged citizenship as jury service. I am minded in particular of Amy Wan’s 2011 College English piece, “In the Name of Citizenship: The Writing Classroom and the Promise of Citizenship,” which I read in those heady times when I thought I might be teaching college English as a full-time, continuing thing–which is not the case, obviously, but I had hopes, then. While definitions of citizenship and duty can certainly be argued, and unfortunately often disingenuously and/or with an eye to removing the one from and enforcing the other upon those who can least endure the changes, the basic idea seems a sound one from my experience of the classroom and the courtroom: humanistic education has particular valence in jury service.

For one thing, I did note what might be called rhetorical effects of the setting. The courtroom I reported to does much to focus attention on the judge’s bench while removing its occupant from common access; the judge (whom I will note I found personally pleasant) is the representative of law, present and commanding but remote, or so those called into the courtroom are pushed to believe. Standing upon the judge’s entrance reinforces that those in the courtroom are at the judge’s whim, enforced by armed bailiffs–at least one of whom made a point of calling out people dressed “inappropriately” for the occasion and loudly chastising a very junior staffer with a promise to “tell [her] boss about it, too.” Even though much was made through jingoistic, propagandistic statements about jury service being something “that can only be done by a free people,” and even though the judge commanded those in the court to rise for the entrance and exit of the jury panel, the disparity of power in the room was clear, with particular speech acts compelled under threat of force. (The bailiffs’ hands rested on the handles of their sidearms an awful lot, to my eye.) Would I have noticed it had I not the training and experience I do? Would I perhaps have read it as comfort in a system that stands above people, rather than as a show that may or may not have any substance to it–because law and justice are far from being the same thing–had I not? I could not say; I do not know who I would be without. As it is, I scarcely know who I am with it.

More importantly to me, I think, having been trained in the academic humanities helped me understand better the process of voir dire, when the prosecuting and defending attorneys pressed the members of the jury panel for information to facilitate their selection of a trial jury. I recognized from one attorney many of the same tactics I had seen deployed by professors I have had–and which I have, in turn, deployed–to lead students along to a conclusion the professors desired. I know that the attorney’s job is, in fact, to persuade the jury to the argument s/he makes, that the defendant is or is not guilty of the charge/s pressed, but I do not know that many or most of the others on the jury panel with me were aware that the attorneys were doing their work even at that point, prior to the presentation of any evidence or testimony to bolster their cases. The ability to identify my own biases came up, as well, though I hesitate to state more explicitly, both out of professional concerns and out of a desire to keep the specific case relatively anonymous. And the ability to recognize others’ biases made me a bit sad; I was not the only one with pre-existing opinions that touched upon the kinds of things the case appeared ready to treat, but not as many voiced their concerns or took them into account as perhaps ought to have for the sake of giving the defendant as close to fair a trial as could be.

As I note above, I was not selected to sit on the jury. Evidently, my case for my own biases and their potential negative impact on proceedings was convincing to the attorneys and the presiding judge. Had I been, though, the obvious things would have come to bear for me: the ability to understand dense, often arcane wording and the principles it articulates, and the ability to apply that understanding to evidence presented and the explanations of that evidence offered to the court in the hopes of reaching a true and accurate determination of guilt or innocence of the charges pressed. Such things, absent the guilt or innocence issue, are the core of what study of the academic humanities does–but that’s an old assertion and one that seems not to be nearly so important as might be hoped.

If ever I am on trial, give me a jury of English majors.

Jury duty doesn’t pay much here; care to help offset some of it?

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