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Is the citizenship glass half-full after all?

Is the citizenship glass half-full after all?

As a judge pro tem in the Scottsdale City Court (Scottsdale, Arizona) for approximately the last ten years or so, I now find myself as one of the two or three “old hands” at this exciting and educational part-time job. As such, I am now called upon to handle jury trials for the Court, and have now presided over perhaps a dozen. Each such trial requires me to conduct voir dire examination over approximately 40 people summoned to Court for jury duty prior to turning the pool of candidates over to the respective attorneys to ask their own questions and then, inevitably, to de-select each other’s desired jurors.

This means that I, even with my limited involvement as a “substitute teacher judge,” have had to question around 500 people who were forced to leave their respective lives, jobs and families for a possible two or three day “civic duty” jury trial under threat of sanction by the City of Scottsdale if they fail to abide by their jury summons.  Not exactly the world’s “nicest” situation.

And let’s face it—anyone who is willing to publically embarrass themselves can, absolutely, positively avoid being selected to sit on a jury. You cannot avoid receiving a notice of summons to come to Court, but you can guarantee that you will be excluded from an actual jury.  Simply stating that yes, you do believe that police officers are more believable than civilians when testifying, or, the direct opposite– that they are not as believable. Or that yes, you are racist in your beliefs and most (fill in the racial stereotype here) are, in fact, likely guilty if charged with a crime. Or, as a matter of fact, yes, you do believe that insurance companies are in fact the same as organized crime only slightly less honorable in their dealings.  You get the point—15 minutes of red-faced shame and you’re released back to your job, your family—your regular life.

And yet, I realized last week while conducting such questions, people don’t usually do it that way. Oh sure—there are a few folks who answer that way—but I don’t think many of them are putting on an act—they ARE racist and ignorant.

In fact, the vast majority of juror candidates actually answer questions honestly and insightfully, often sharing past traumatic events with a small group of strangers to make certain that the parties actually get a fair glimpse at their feelings—sometimes a raw and painful glimpse (last week a potential juror for our DUI case told us her son had been killed by a drunk driver). 
And it dawned on me—maybe most citizens actually do take this civic responsibility seriously.  How can that be?  In a time of reality television and disregard for common courtesy can people really be willing to give two days of their lives to a stranger to ensure that our justice system is actually just?  And, like the Grinch (who lives in much colder weather), I was shocked to admit to myself that maybe Americans do, after all, still “get it.”  And I smiled… and went back to asking intrusive and embarrassing questions of strangers.


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