Jury Duty

I was recently called to jury duty. I spent two days uncharacteristically dressed casually in the Multnomah County Circuit Court, seeing a side of things which normally, I don’t.

It ought to surprise no one that I wasn’t picked to serve on jury. This seems cynical and frankly, lawyers are cynical about being called to serve. We’re rarely picked — I think it’s because other lawyers don’t want lawyers on the jury panel to be judging them rather than judging the facts of the case. So I wasn’t really expecting to make it out of the veniere (that’s fancy Law-Latin for “the panel from which a jury is drawn.”)

Each day, I found myself pretty quickly put on two different venieres, one each day. One was for a criminal matter and once — it made me laugh out loud — for an employment dispute. I’d dearly have enjoyed serving, other than the time commitment away from my own practice. The courts have provided me with ways to help resolve my clients’ matters, and the idea of giving back was very appealing.

Of course it’s insightful to see various ways my colleagues go through the voir dire process (that’s how a veniere is narrowed down to the actual jury). But I’ve my own thoughts about that process, and for me, it’s a matter of picking the right strategy for my client’s situation. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for me, and I can’t really offer any of my own ideas here, since it’s always a hands-on collaboration with my client in the courtroom.

But the real value was not professional, it was emotional. Of course it was fun to talk with and hear from people I’d not likely ever met otherwise. Taking a step back, it was (low-key) moving.

Hundreds of people from my community, from many different walks of life, set aside the inconvenience of disrupting their regular schedules, to serve. Of course only a few were particularly happy to be there, but few were upset about it. Most were sincere when they described jury service as a civic duty they were willing to do when asked. They recognized how they would be asked to make decisions that would impact other people’s lives and took the responsibility seriously.

This is a bedrock part of what makes our legal system work. But more than a serious responsibility, it is a privilege to serve on a jury. It is a temporary entrustment of real power over fellow citizens’ lives, and an entrusting of the law to ordinary people. That is a check on the government, and a fulfillment of our national promise that justice really is for all.

Finally, I really enjoyed the video shown during juror orientation about unconscious bias. This is an important concept, which has really only recently been studied in a serious way. By “recently,” I mean within the past generation or so. It’s something we all have just as much as we have bodies and minds and emotions and senses — and it’s something people would do well to be mindful of even when not serving on juries. Most of all, the way the concept was presented was not confrontational or accusatory; the video offered practical ways of dealing with it. Really good work by the producers and the judicial officers who made it.

Most people who are called to serve on juries come away from the experience reporting that they liked it. I came away from my two days of service much less cynical about the strength of our institutions, and the vitality of our community’s civic spirit, than I had been before. Thank you for that, to all who serve.