Published: Mar 7, 2008 by Maria Gwyn McDowell
Location: Multnomah County Circuit Court
Seat: a padded black leather chair, purchased not by the State of Oregon, but by the generous donation of the per diem of former jurors to a Jury Room Improvement fund.
Alternative seat: a hard black plastic thing. Thank goodness for the donations.
Newly re-registered in my home state, and called to serve within a month, I am fulfilling my sole legal obligation as a female citizen of the United States (unlike my brothers, I am do not need to register for selective service). Our orientation to the responsibilities of our patriotic duty was delivered by Judge Janice Wilson. I use “patriotic” intentionally. This is one of those few times in my life I feel proud to be a citizen of the United States. Yes, I am one of those Americans who is rarely proud of my country, which is the subject of another discussion.
My first moment of pride came during an assignment for a high school political science class. I chose to attend my first political event, a rally for Dukakis. I couldn’t vote, but I had an enormous sense of being a part of something important, something that matters. The second swelling of national pride occurred when I actually voted for the first time, exercising what Mrs. Nancy Lee called my “political efficacy.” She was adamant that her students participate in the political process, regardless of what side of the aisle we chose. I can remember the morning when, on the front page of the Oregonian, there appeared a picture of grafitti scrawled along the waterfront retaining wall downtown: “Kill Quayle First.” Dukakis lost to Bush the First, and no one wanted the perceived idiot Quayle to ever succeed to the office of President (clearly, we had no quibbles with IQ a mere 16 years later). Mrs. Lee was IRATE. She stood in front of the classroom and practically shouted, “THIS IS NOT DEMOCRACY!!!!” “This is NOT how we protest our government,” she fumed, “this is NOT how we express our objection to our leaders, whether we like them or not. We vote, we write our representatives and congressman, we engage in activism. We do NOT threaten the lives of our representative leaders.” I am still proud to vote, though I my cynicism about the reality of even bare representative democracy in our nation has grown considerably since she stood in front of an idealistic high school student.
Today however, I am proud again of our democratic republic. The judicial system, while not corrupt (at least I hope, in most cases), is certainly less than ideal. We know that race and class affect the ability to get a fair trial, and I am pleased to count among my friends public defenders who do their best to ensure that even the most blatant of offenders gets as fair a trial as they are able to give because they believe that everyone has a right to a jury of their peers. We all know that “peers” hardly the case in every trial. The conviction rate of black defendants by white juries is disproportional to the conviction rate of white defendants. At the founding of our nation, I would not have been a “peer,” my sex rendering me unsuitable for even this single responsibility.
But today, I am a peer, or at least, am sitting in a room of possible peers (haven’t been called yet), and I think that this might be a more true example of democracy than voting. Judge Wilson made clear that we are to decide based on the facts, and it is not our job to object to or change the law in the jury room. She also reminded us that the decisions made today will affect the lives of fellow citizens. Our judicial system depends on the fair rendering of judgement not by a single, trained person, but by a group of randomly selected citizens who bring a unique set of skills and due consideration that no single person could bring. In this case, the group is hopefully able to render a more fair judgment precisely because it is a group which must reach consensus (or suffer the wrath of a judge faced with a hung trial according to the more experienced peer sitting next to me).
I suppose the emphasis on group struck me because most often, groups are seen as forces for ill, not good. Reinhold Niebuhr (and a friend who is a writing a most interesting science fiction novel which I hope will someday be published - yesterday we agreed that the first one to complete our respective manuscripts must take the other out to a nice dinner. Beer seemed too insignificant for the accomplishment), one of the most famous U.S. Theologians of the 20th century, wrote articulately of the dangers of groups. What an individual would be loath to do as immoral is perfectly moral if done by a group. Individuals cannot kill, but groups can. Individuals may question the morality of killing someone because of race, class, sex, or sexual orientation. Groups, small or large, do not hesitate. Niebuhr is concerned that the fanatic fervor of institutionalized religions too often affirms as righteous behavior which individuals would condemn as immoral. He summarizes his view in the title of his two-volume treatise, Moral Man and Immoral Society.
History certainly supports Niebuhr’s thesis. The Inquisition, the Thirty-Years War (to which Mrs. Lee regularly referred), Russian pogrom’s, the Armenian genocide, even Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” are all well-known religious examples. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Rwanda remind us of the dangers of political, racial or nationalistic ideology. I would include the economic subjugation justified by blatantly self-serving “laissez-faire” economic policies which rely on cheap labor and tax shelters (slavery, migrant labor, sweat-shop labor, and all sorts of multi-national corporations).
History also undermines his thesis, or at least it paints a far more complex figure. MLK Jr did not march alone. Gandi mobilized an entire nation. The Berlin wall fell in part due to the peaceful movement of religious groups. Groups enable individuals to stand together against oppression, hatred and bigotry. Gropus can inspire good as well as evil.
And, in this moment of national pride, I think that juries illustrate the benefit of groups over the individual. Together, we bring diverse skill, perspectives and biases. Mirroring our national system, we participate in a system of checks and balances in order to render a fair judgment. But we render judgment as individuals within a group. Our judicial system relies on our willingness to cooperate, to reason together, the think carefully about the law and facts. I am often less than impressed with the thoughtfulness of our citizenry. However, I am glad that we have a system based on the best vision of the person as a thoughtful participant in the common good, on shared responsibilities and rights, and on the obligation to hold one another accountable to our laws. And, when the laws are bad, to advocate for their change through yet another branch of our system, the legislature.
The upshot of this moment of patriotism? We have all been dismissed as all the cases were settled out of court by noon today. A rare occurance, but one which, as Judge Wilson mentioned, depends on our presence even if we never serve on the jury. Not only do the parties know we are ready if trial proceeds, our presence underscores their need to be sure they really want to go to trial. Our decisions after all, are final.