Scott Rasmussen: Lessons in democracy
Like most Americans, I groaned when the mail included a summons to jury duty. Having been there before, I envisioned three days of wasted time in a bland room with lousy internet service. Instead, I served on a jury and came away with a renewed confidence in America’s tradition of self-governance.
My service as Juror No. 2 took place in Freehold, New Jersey, near a Battle of Monmouth monument. At first, I inwardly chuckled when the judge cited the history of the place to convince us of the importance of the jury system. Being a history buff, I knew the battle wasn’t as consequential as she tried to make it sound. But, I appreciated the effort to explain that the right to trial by a jury of our peers was as important as our rights to freedom of speech and religion.
As the process unfolded, I began to recognize that jury trials are in many ways a healthier expression of American democracy than our system of politics and elections.
The process of jury selection, for example, emphasized the rights of the parties to receive a fair hearing. Many prospective jurors were dropped from the trial based upon answers to 22 questions about potential conflicts and other matters. Then, those still in the pool answered questions about personal interests and relationships. Both attorneys rejected some jurors based upon those answers. No explanation was required. They were just exercising rights designed to ensure an impartial jury for their clients.
This was an important reminder that we all have certain rights that cannot be taken away by our government or anyone else. Too many Americans forget this and talk as if the majority can do whatever it wants. But that’s not the way it works in a free and self-governing society.
Perhaps the biggest surprise came when everybody in the courtroom rose when we entered or left the room. The judge explained that the honor was bestowed because we were the decision makers. In effect, it was a recognition of our sovereign status in that setting. Can you imagine how much different it would be if elected officials had to stand when their constituents entered the room? Can you think of any way in which national politicians seriously acknowledge that the people are supposed to be the ultimate decision makers in America today?
Perhaps the most important lesson of all, however, came when we were summoned for the final time as a jury. Informing us that a settlement had been reached, the judge went out of her way to explain that our time and service had been essential to the outcome. She specifically said no settlement would have been possible if this had been an administrative trial.
That, it seems to me, is the proper model for political engagement in a self-governing society.
As a jury, we were the sovereign power in that courtroom. But, we had no power at all once the parties worked things out for themselves. Knowing we were there, and wondering what we might decide, certainly had an impact on the settlement discussions. But the decision was not ours to make.
A healthy political system would encourage everyone to find solutions by working together in community. When we do that, there’s no reason for the politicians to get involved.