A reader writes:
As a trial judge, it's painfully obvious to me why so many people hate jury duty. It can be interesting, educational, exciting – a great experience in interactive democracy if done right. You get to make a difference in your community and in the lives of real people; you learn something about the law; you see real justice being done right before your eyes, and you're the one doing it.
Unfortunately, that's not the experience a lot of people come away with. Instead, lawyers and judges often treat jurors like second-class citizens. They give them lip service about how important they are, but then they patently hide information from them, don't explain legal concepts, keep them in the dark about what's happening during the trial, and make it clear that they're not trusted. Worse, their time is wasted, their privacy is invaded, and they're not given the tools to do the job properly – they're usually not allowed to ask questions, instructions may be given just once, orally, and in some jurisdictions, the jurors aren't even allowed to take notes!
All these problems are compounded in those cases dealing with subject matter that is either emotionally wrenching (hearing the gory details of some innocent person's life-altering injuries, especially a child's) or frightening (a vicious crime – and the alleged perpetrator knows your name and is sitting right there looking at you).
I start every jury session by personally thanking the jurors for their service, and explaining to them that we're there to do justice together. I explain to them that the Founders of our country were wise enough to provide that we'd elect representatives to make the laws and carry them out, but when it came to doing justice in the given case, that was too important to elect representatives – we have to come together, as the voice of the community, to do justice, case by case.
I could go on, but you get the point. When I stress that they're there to do something important – to do justice – attitudes change. I take care to explain legal concepts as they arise during trial. I, and many judges, provide written copies of instructions. And when that happens, to my experience, they rise to the occasion and earnestly try to do justice.
It all comes down to job satisfaction. When treated like the job they're doing is important, and when empowered to do it, I find that most jurors enjoy the experience. When patronized, they don't. Which is a shame.
In my experience as a public defender in Oregon, most people really don’t hate jury duty. I feel bad for jurors – they are only paid $10 a day for their service in Oregon courts, plus 20 cents a mile. But I’ve found that jurors take their public service quite seriously. In the last month, I’ve had two trials. Both lasted three days, but in each instance, the 12-person jury took more than five hours to reach a final verdict, because they clearly cared about the process and wanted to reach the conclusion supported by the evidence.
The common saying is that a jury is made up of 12 people too stupid to find a way to get off jury duty. But in my experience, the 12 people who are chosen are the ones who can make the commitment to do it right.