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Jury Duty a Lesson in Civics

Hunter Baker, Associate Dean of Arts & Science
Mar 8, 2013

I have been tapped for jury duty in Madison County. Recently, I joined 70-80 other citizens in a courtroom. A very polite judge provided our orientation and explained that for the next two months the state of Tennessee would have first claim on our time.

After the orientation, the judge met with many individuals, including me, who petitioned for particular days off during the two months because of plans already made or other special circumstances. When it was my turn to speak to the judge, he treated me with respect and granted my request. I walked out of the courtroom, down the stairs, and got into my car. By the time I sat down and grabbed the steering wheel, my hands were shaking.
 
I had a fairly smooth experience. So why the apparently excessive reaction? No one mistreated me. I received the respect a citizen in a republic should expect.
The answer is simple. For the first time in my life, I personally had to ask an officer of the government whether I would be allowed to spend certain days in certain places. It was completely in the power of the judge to prevent me from leaving town in order to serve on juries yet to be empaneled. There was something about that fact that shook me to the core. I suddenly felt unfree.
 
Is it outrageous that a judge should be able to corral citizens for a period of about two months and call upon them as needed for jury service? I’m not ready to make such a judgment. There may be a better method available. But it certainly seems that something like that power is necessary for us to offer trial by juries.
 
The point of this brief deliberation is not to call for an end to jury duty. Though it can be burdensome, jury service is an important way of maintaining the role of citizens in the act of governing. But there is a lesson to be learned. Government power is an awesome power. Citizens who have committed no wrong of any kind can be taken by the shoulder and compelled to pay taxes, serve on juries or even leave home and fight in a war.
 
An instrument of this type must not be overused. This essentially libertarian insight is difficult to overstate. Because government is the simplest way to make something happen — coercion by raw force is often the simplest — those who would bring about a better order will always be tempted to employ its power. Every time we increase the power of Leviathan we should shudder a little and take comfort in knowing that we only did so after the most agonizing and wakeful deliberation.
 
Jury duty has a paradoxical effect on the citizen. It simultaneously empowers us as it restrains us. It is an opportunity and an obstacle. When we serve, we may well make choices that result in our fellow citizens being fined or imprisoned. It is a good reminder of the enormous responsibility we have.
 
In the meantime, I need to go call a number I’ll be checking every weeknight for the next couple of months. It tells me where I am required to be.
 
This column originally appeared in the March 8 edition of The Jackson Sun