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Importance of Jury Service

Two unhappy jurors wrote recent letters to the editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram complaining that they hated jury duty. They thought it inconvenient and at times an invasion of privacy. History shows, though, that jury service is the closest that most people will ever get to direct participation in the process of self-government.The history of the right to trial by jury in America pre-dates the founding of the United States. It was the only protection of both personal and property rights found in all 13 of the original states before adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Its denial by England’s Lord Chief Justice Mansfield was a major grievance against King George III by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

Along with freedom of the press and religion, the right to trial by jury in both civil (Seventh Amendment) and criminal (Sixth Amendment) cases was adopted with the entire Bill of Rights under President George Washington in 1791.

Abraham Lincoln tried more than 70 jury trials in federal court alone in Springfield, Ill. His belief in the powers of the jury was summed up when he said about one lawsuit, “If I can free this case from technicalities, and get it properly swung to the jury, I’ll win it.”

His trust in juries permeates this closing argument to the jury in another case brought by a revolutionary war widow over the theft of her pension:

“Time rolls by, the heroes of ‘76 have passed away and are encamped on the other shore. The soldier has gone to rest, and now, crippled, blind and broken, his widow comes to you and to me, gentlemen of the jury, to right her wrongs. She was not always thus. She was once a beautiful young woman. Her step was elastic, her face fair, and her voice as sweet as any that rang in the mountains of old Virginia. But now she is poor and defenseless. Out here on the prairies of Illinois,

many hundreds of miles away from the scenes of her childhood, she appeals to us, who enjoy the privileges achieved for us by the patriots of the Revolution, for our sympathetic aid and manly protection. All I ask is, shall we befriend her?”

The jury did as Lincoln asked.

This honorable history doesn’t mean that we should blame jurors for feeling put upon when they are called to jury service. All citizens with jobs and families are too busy in this life, and jury service is undoubtedly inconvenient.The key issue is whether the inconvenience is worth it. It is not only worth it but is an essential ingredient of self-government.

Jefferson called trial by jury “the only anchor yet imagined by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

Alexis de Toqueville wrote nearly two centuries ago that the right to trial by jury “gives the habit of discussing public affairs to a multitude of persons. It teaches the people to take a hand in its own affairs, and to regard as its business all the interests of society. It gives a great outside power to the administration of justice, it prevents the magistracy from becoming a body apart from the people, and gives it a force that is immense and almost always useful in political questions. . . . [It] is impossible to conceive of a people among whom the jury is solidly established who are not a free people.”Today, amid calls for the jury to relinquish its power and central historical role in our free society, we should listen to the voices from our past before complaining too loudly of the inconvenience of jury service.

Without a doubt it is inconvenient, and for some the randomness of jury selection requires them to serve more often than others. For some it can seem an invasion of privacy when judges ask
questions about bias to assure juror impartiality. But are these prices too high to pay for all that we’ve been given by our forebears?

In the final analysis, isn’t jury service the last opportunity we have in civil society for average people to stand and act as patriots? And if we refuse to stand for others, who, may I ask, will stand for us?

Timothy G. Chovanec is a former president of the Fort Worth Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

Reprinted from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 17, 2000.