Log in Subscribe

A few of our stories and columns are now in front of the paywall. We at The Chief-Leader remain committed to independent reporting on labor and civil service. It's been our mission since 1897. You can have a hand in ensuring that our reporting remains relevant in the decades to come. Consider supporting The Chief, which you can do for as little as $3.20 a month.

Jury duty: trial and tribulation


The Aztec and Mayan civilizations have passed on their legacies of human sacrifice to the American judicial system. Doing one's civil duty can rip out one's heart. It's an exercise in democracy.

The jury system works best as an abstraction. The guilty and the innocent can be neither remanded nor sprung free from an abstraction. No harm done. Abstractions can be sanitized or erased. They take no form so they take no prisoners.

But when concepts like "equal justice under law" and "jury of one's peers" are tested institutionally, the reality often is neither reliable nor pretty. Still, the system is touted as the best in an imperfect world.

My latest jury duty service was my briefest. I'd been on civil and criminal cases, petit and grand juries, state and federal cases and was foreman twice. Being away from the classroom felt like Tahiti and I got my regular pay, not the $40 per day the government pays  jurors for discharging their sublime and vital duty.

They're not so thrifty with military procurement deals.

Juror duty for criminal cases tends to be more engaging than for civil suits, which are more common. Despite the annoying media pitches for personal injury attorneys (colorfully but unfairly called "slip and fall" or "ambulance chasers"), these lawyers, though mercenaries, are champions of the "little guys" and enable us to abuse the system with as much relish as the big guys do.

Not so sure about the "class action" hustlers who troll for clients who may still get dyspepsia in the future after drinking an egg cream on a military base during the Korean War.

Is it a viable presupposition that justice is always achievable? At least one must play along. When in doubt, yet sincerely open to persuasion, it may be a good idea to initially fake one's faith in the system in the hope it may become genuine if duly impressed.

Can jurors be counted upon to make determinations based solely on universal principles and standards of law and fairness? In theory.

Will  jurors reach verdicts unaffected by their own sympathies? Will strength of character and allegiance to the law triumph over the magnetic pull of identity loyalties?

Our jury selection process allows attorneys to question and exclude prospective jurors for undisclosed reasons. That's not the case in countries like Australia. Which is fairer? 

Attorneys are not so much interested in eliminating bias as picking jurors whose biases are best aligned with those of their clients. And afterwards, they keep up the pressure by gaslighting, defined as "a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator is trying to get someone else, or a group of people, to question their own reality, memory or perceptions.”

Achieving justice can be as much an accident of the law of averages as the result of honest debate and soul-searching. It does not necessarily prevail on its own merits.

The court I most recently attended had architectural gravitas: majestic columns, a flowery mission statement replete with a timeless platitude chiseled in stone, and well-placed toilets.

Not all the officers staffing the X-ray machines struck a balance between vigilance and tact. A frail, neurologically impaired juror wearing a titanium belt buckle was treated like an active shooter. I guess it was a tough call for an aspiring pat-down artist.

Once in the Central Juror Room, we captives viewed a video featuring Janet DiFiore,  until recently the chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. She spoke about compulsory service as both a divine right and rite. 

The irony was that DiFiore had resigned months earlier because, according to Forbes, "reports surfaced that she was under investigation by the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct for improperly interfering in a disciplinary hearing".

Is the bar too low for the limbo dancers in black robes?

Her successor is likely to be Governor Kathy Hochul's nominee, Judge Rowan Wilson. The Post claimed he "tossed a rape conviction" on minutiae  and with invective hidden by newsprint, dubbed him a "liberal.”

According to another Post story, jurors in Texas recently convicted a defendant of two counts of "harassment of a public servant" and sentenced him to 70 years for once spitting at police officers. That judge got labeled conservative.

Anybody who believes that pure legal scholarship is not overruled by ideological litmus tests in the determination of judicial appointments is either a liar, an idiot or a bagman.

A second video shown to the jurors at my recent civic ordeal was about "implicit bias.” It was well-done, not condescending, accusatory or polemical and didn't foster disunity.

Our society is so balkanized, polarized and feverish with group-think that the unfeigned quest for objectivity may be consummated only in fiction. Hardcore, "end justifies the means" mindsets have reduced the primacy of conscience to an inconvenient, cumbersome, obstructive anachronism.

Reaching the truth at all costs has become a lost art and an abandoned priority conjured by wishful thinking and confidence games.

When there are political overtones, cases are not won, lost or even conceived on the strict basis of legal scholarship. The pillars of law yield to the pillars of constituencies.

Jurors are sometimes instructed not to visit crime scenes, discuss cases with family or on social media, or engage in any unauthorized communication. When they have witnessed revelations in court, but the evidence was inadmissible even if accurate, they may be ordered to forget what they know, even if it capsizes the whole case.

Sometimes justice is  said to be served only when just verdicts are thwarted.

To avoid accountability, district attorneys can reclassify violent crimes as misdemeanors in order to dodge the legal mandate of prosecuting felonies. Not all eyes get to see the Big Picture. Different blinders fit different eyes.

The law should be prism-less. Progressives and conservatives should be bound only by the canon and tenets of justice for all. But that is a pipe dream.

If you avow the right of a surviving family member to give an impact statement at a parole hearing for a convicted murderer, you may be called a victim supremacist. If you affirm a path to rehabilitation of a penitent felon, some will mock you  as a "bleeding heart" and enabler of domestic terrorism.

The mission of the jury system is sometimes belied and refuted by the powers of presidents, governors and even mayors, to circumvent the will of the people. They do it through executive pardons, commutations and orders.

English monarchs lost that franchise around 1650.

Disparate treatment may not be the name of the game of our judicial system, but should plead guilty as its telling nickname. If bail is granted to an accused offender, there should be no means test as a price for freedom.

The rich should not be able to purchase liberty while the indigent are detained for want of a dime.

Abominations do not nurture trust in the judicial system. We are all potential targets, no matter who we are, what we believe or what we have done or contemplate doing. And those who judge us are all capable of miscarriages, no matter who they are, what they believe, or which philosophy they profess.

A security technician in the employ of Joseph Stalin stated in a tutorial for posterity: "Show me the man, I'll show you the crime.”  That's been modernized to "Show me the verdict, I'll show you the accused.”

Is our judicial system the best in the world? The jury's out.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here