Magazine article Dissent

"We, the Jury . . ."

Magazine article Dissent

"We, the Jury . . ."

Article excerpt

Jury duty is probably the original form of participatory democracy, and since the end of military conscription, it is the only personal service required by the state. Given the opportunities for evasion in most cities and counties in the United States, it is probable that more Americans vote (though voting isn't required) than serve on juries, but voting takes only a few minutes, jury duty at least a few days. For most of us, serving on a jury, if we serve, is the most that we will ever do in person for the American republic. Libertarians think that taxation also requires personal service: for some significant part of each year we work and earn money for the state. But that's not how we experience taxation. The only personal service it requires is filling out the forms and writing the check, and when we do that we are thinking mostly of ourselves and not of the republic. Jury duty is different because we have to think about other people. Long ago, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that men and women who serve on juries are also served: they are lifted out of the private sphere; they learn about law and justice; they become better citizens. Jury duty, he thought, is a central feature of American democracy and one of the sources of its strength. Because many of us on the left are worried these days about the strength of American democracy and about the willingness of our fellow citizens to bear its burdens, it seems useful to revisit the question of jury duty. We reprint here Tocqueville's argument (excerpted from Democracy in America [eds. J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner, trans., George Lawrence, Harper & Row, 1966, pp. 249-53]), follow it with eight reports from the field by editors and friends who have been called for jury duty, and end with an appraisal of Tocqueville's analysis. - Eds.

The Jury in the United States Considered as a Political Institution

My subject having led me to discuss the administration of justice in the United States, I shall not leave it without speaking of the jury. . . .

To regard the jury simply as a judicial institution would be taking a very narrow view of the matter, for great though its influence on the outcome of lawsuits is, its influence on the fate of society itself is much greater still. …

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