Vail Daily column: Why you should be a juror
Venue for the Rossi Moreau trial has been changed. The trial will now be held at some yet-to-be-determine site within the 5th Judicial District. The causes for the change were apparently twofold. First, Moreau has been around these parts for some time and lots of know him. This is fair; an accused is entitled to an impartial trail, one neither tainted with prejudice against him nor slanted in his favor. The second reason that a decision to move the trial was reached is more disturbing; not enough of those who were summoned to serve for jury duty bothered show up.
In a capital murder case, the accused is entitled to be tried before a jury of 12 of his “peers.” To get to 12 unbiased jurors, 450 Eagle County citizens were summoned to report. Apparently something less than one in four bothered to show up. Besides the obvious – the court could, if it chose, haul each and every last one of the no-shows into court to explain why he or she should not be held in contempt – failing to show up is simply anti-democratic. Yeah, it might be a pain in the derriere but, darn it, it’s your patriotic duty! Stated simply, jury service is one of the most important civic duties you can perform. The protection of legal rights and liberties is achieved in no significant part through the courts. Hey, this is what your forefathers fought and died for! To close your eyes to it is like turning down a gift that, however much we may take it for granted, was paid for in blood.
OK, off my high horse now. But c’mon, it’s the down-and-dirty in the trenches way the system that protects us all actually works. While you will hopefully never be accused of murder or any other crime, it’s nice to know that the system is well lubricated and should you find yourself before it one day, your peers have stepped up to do their duty. Would you rather Big Brother work things out for you instead?
While most people recognize that jury duty is the bedrock of our legal system and hence, in a very real sense, the solid firmament of our most precious freedoms, too many folks shun their obligation to serve as jurors as if being offered up a dose of the plague. The reasons are as varied as people themselves but most times, I think, the answer boils down to “I’ve got better things to do.”
But jury duty is not only good for the country; it is good for the juror. No, really. Jury duty is where the rubber of the Constitution hits the road. It is Paul Revere, Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education and the Scopes “Monkey” trials incarnate. It is where the substance of our laws undergoes its miraculous transformation from esoterica and fuzzy-headed theory to flesh-and-blood reality. And to be a part of it is, well, good for the soul.
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Admittedly, lawyers and their machinations can at times be numbing. Posturing and picking nits, however, is only the smallest part of the story. There is a real, breathing, ever-evolving law that in its application can, at times, be downright fascinating. And to be not only part of the process but the final arbiter of the dispute (or perhaps someone’s freedom) is both humbling and empowering. It is an aspect of responsibility – to a stranger, to a fellow citizen – that you will likely experience few times in your life. And that responsibility falls to the jurors.
We are a nation of judgment lists. We have opinions on everything. Even things we know next to nothing about, things we’ve never thought about, things where our well of knowledge has passed through the often unreliable aquifer of the press and “spin.” And yet, as eager as we are to pass judgment on every last little bit of minutiae from “American Idol” to Herman Cain’s alleged indiscretions, our appetite for real judgment seems shockingly elusive. Maybe because real judgment is a more demanding task. Or maybe just because we’re squeamish; we don’t want it on our conscience if we’re wrong.
It’s not just jury duty. We seem to have lost our “civicness” entirely. Blame the Internet, television, working mothers … if you like. It hardly matters. Within each of us lies the power to correct that. In our own little way, making our own little contributions.
When I was a student, I struggled with the definition of democracy. Was it that everyone acting selfishly cumulated the collective will? Or was it, rather, each of us acting in the way we thought best for the nation as a whole the responsibility of us each as citizens? I’ll leave that to your own internal struggle. What I do know is this; if no one comes to the dance, there can be no dancing. And if there is no dancing, the band goes home.
Democracy is like that. It is a participation sport. And if no one shows up to participate … well, draw your own conclusions.
I am certainly not the first to expound that democracy is a unique privilege and that we as a nation have grown fat, happy and secure on a diet of it. But democracy cannot be left to others to nurture. It requires by its very definition, a little fertilization by all of us.
Is the system perfect? By no means. What, I ask, is perfect? And in a democracy, where every differing opinion may be freely and often loudly expressed, there is likely to be more cacophony and less perfection than in towing narrow party lines. But therein lies the beauty. Democracy gives each person voice. And if you feel your voice is not being heard, ask yourself if you are raising it, or simply grumbling in your silence and inaction. Jury duty is a mouthpiece. It is an opportunity. It is where justice is most times worked and where the all too often flaccid muscle of democracy is exercised.
The truly cool thing about jury duty is how people rise to the occasion. How most times it makes them as good as they can be. Despite initial grumbling and the “why me”s of being dragged off in metaphorical chains to jury duty, most jurors take their station seriously, stay both awake and alert during the proceedings, and render what is most times, thoughtful and appropriate justice. And most leave feeling richer for the experience and more fulfilled as citizens. There is something gratifying in seeing a thing work the way that it’s supposed to with the bonus of discharging a civic duty and, in your own little way, bettering the process and renewing it.
And there is a take-home lesson from jury duty. Think about how much better our everyday lives might be it we paid attention, listened carefully, did not jump to conclusions and took the justice we meted out and the judgments we arrived at more seriously and with more compassion.
I wasn’t kidding. Jury duty is good for you, good for your community, and for the country. So when you’re called think about taking it seriously. You may just find yourself renewed and reinvested in this system that, although less than perfect, functions with profound skill, earnestness and genuinely profound alacrity.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowners’ associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.