". . . We believe that trial by jury is fundamental to the American scheme of justice. . . . The jury trial provisions in the Federal and State Constitutions reflect a fundamental decision about the exercise of official power – a reluctance to entrust plenary powers over the life and liberty of the citizen to one judge or to a group of judges." Justice Byron White, in Duncan v. Louisiana (1967)
After my month long vacation outside of the country, I came back to find a court summons awaiting me to serve on a 'petit jury'. To my dismay, the last date to send in the confirmation receipt for the summon had passed, so I had to rush a call to the county office to find out what I had to do. The gracious lady at the office said that I could still send the receipt to the county office. I was relieved, but I still felt burdened about doing 'jury duty'.
The next day, I mentioned the court summon to a colleague at work, a recent immigrant from Africa, and her comment surprised me. "You will be like a judge!", she said, mighty impressed and excited that I would be serving on a jury! I was about to tell her how the impending jury duty was going to inconvenience me in so many ways; I had so many important things planned for that week during which I would now be sitting in a courthouse deciding the legitimacy of a stranger's action! However, her delighted response caught me off guard, and I found myself pondering on what it meant to be a juror in the U.S.A. Those words of my colleague that day, and the words of the swearing-in judge at the courthouse this morning compelled me to write this post about some of the thoughts that came to me while I was waiting in the courthouse. We in the USA are, indeed, privileged to be a part of a sophisticated judicial system where a) the defendant is innocent until proven guilty b) the state and not the defendant has the responsibility of proving the charges c) the defendant is tried by a jury constituting of his peers, randomly summoned to serve d) 'the defense need not prove the innocence of the defendant, only that there is a reasonable doubt regarding guilt'.
The jury selection process can be long and grueling, as it proved to be for me this time. After reaching the courthouse at 8 A.M, I was called in, along with some 40 others, at about 9 A.M. We were taken to a room with a presiding judge, a defendant, two lawyers, a secretary, and two police officers. We were then asked to answer some thirty questions on a survey about our ability to serve on a particular criminal case, the details of which were read out to us by the judge. After two hours, about 20 of us were dismissed, and asked to go back to the waiting room, perhaps to be called in for another case that was to commence that day. At about 11:30, I was summoned again, for a civil trial this time. But I did not meet the fit yet another time, and I found myself back in the waiting room with some twenty others. Ultimately, at about 2 P.M I was dismissed for the day after being told that I had completed my jury summon for the day. Well, I did not get a chance to serve on a jury today; I was not selected from the open pool of about a hundred jurors that reported with me this morning for reasons best known to the lawyers and the presiding judge. Me, and at least 30 others were allowed to leave the courthouse at about 1 P.M, with a compensation cheque of $ 5/-, a letter of excused absence for the day, and an assurance that we would not be called to serve on a jury for at least three years.
At the end of the day, I was in two minds about how I felt: happy at not being selected to serve on a jury, thereby not having to reschedule my calendar for the duration of the case, or did I feel sorry for not being selected to contribute to the health and dynamism of the justice system of this country of which I feel very proud. Maybe I'll get lucky the next time ...
Everyday we read and hear in the news media about countries where the justice system is either archaic, corrupt, or then non-existent. We also know that there are places around the world where the rendition of justice can take years, even outlast a human life! The 'honor killings' in India, the five hundred rape victims in the Congo whose cases may never be registered in any court, the arbitrary punishment meted out to Mukhtaran Bibi, apparently as a form of justice, in Pakistan, the surreptitious handling of the assassination of journalist Natalia Estemirova in Russia, are some tragic examples of a legal system gone awry,when justice was not rendered! In the light of which, we in the United States and those in other countries that follow a similar system, are, indeed, fortunate to have a system in place where an individual is promised a fair and fast trial by a jury of his peers.
Though I did not get selected to serve on a jury today, the five plus hours I spent at the courthouse have left me with a keener civic sense as I pondered over questions such as : If I were ever to be charged of a wrongdoing/crime, would I not rather be judged by a panel of peers rather than by one single individual, even if he were to be a highly qualified 'judge'? Also, would I not be glad for for an efficient legal system that values both justice and time?
I wonder how people around the world view the justice system in their countries....