Thursday, February 09, 2006

Important? Or just necessary?

Yesterday, in response to my having completed jury duty in Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 15, the Hon. Judge Jean Spradling Hughes sent me a "thank you" letter. The letter stated that even though I hadn't been selected, that my jury duty was still important, because the jury system could not function without responsible folks just like me who appear, regardless of whether we are ultimately selected as jurors.

Curiously, I received a catalog in the mail the same day - February 8, 2006. It was the Despair Christmas Catalog. Now, I've given Despair Christmas Calendars out with great glee as Christmas presents in the past. But I'm just twisted like that.

However, one of their products -- a demotivational poster on the topic of Worth -- really seemed appropriate. The poster featured a lovely photograph of a number of gears, over the heading WORTH: Just Because You're Necessary Doesn't Mean You're Important. So, Judge Hughes, which is it: was my service important, or merely necessary?

I believe that is a serious question, and the answer depends on what role we see jurors playing in our legal system. Are they merely factotums, or are they the "palladium of justice" and the "bulwark of liberty?" Are jurors merely fact-finders, expected to blindly accept the law and the evidence and churn them into a mechanical verdict, or are they the conscience of the community, responsible for applying the facts and the requirements of justice to the law, and to fashion a conscientious and just verdict?

Jurors who are not charged with independent judgment and decisionmaking may be necessary for the system to function - but they are hardly important. Their role is mechanical, uninspired, dependent on the decisions of those "important" judges, prosecutors, police officers and lawyers who feed the data into them for a mechanically obvious solution to pop out. Such juries make decisions that are the results of the decisions of others. They are necessary, but fungible. They are unimportant.

Jurors empowered to "think outside the box" are important, because they are empowered to make important decisions. Even if the jury decides, as in most cases they undoubtedly should, that the law SHOULD be applied according to their instructions, the fact that they've been empowered to do more makes their decision to apply the law important. It embraces the voice of the community, it encompasses the power of public decision making.

Jurors are not merely cogs in the machine. They have the capacity to make important, even life-changing decisions. But to be important, they need to understand that those decisions are theirs; the decisions are not merely thrust upon them by the facts and the law. To be important, not just necessary, requires independent decision making. Without knowledge that they possess that role, jurors aren't important - only necessary.


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