I intended to write this post earlier in the week when I first heard about President Obama's selection for jury duty in his home state of Illinois. I understand that jury duty is an important civic function; however, I tend to think that leader of the free world would definitely be one responsibility more important than jury duty.
I reflected back to a family member's call to me this past summer. He was concerned that he had just been called to serve a term as a juror in his hometown. The first question was what he could do the "get out" of serving. My response was not much these days. The next question was, "what will I have to do?" That got me thinking that despite the importance of juries to our legal system, the legal system does a poor job in expressing or explaining that importance to the public.
The jury system, as we know it, stems from the Magna Carta in the 13th Century, which allowed for a trial by your peers. Prior to that time, the King and he alone made the decision. The shortcoming of the Magna Carta was that this right seemingly still only applied to the nobility. Nevertheless, our Constitution established a right to jury trial in criminal and civil cases in the 6th and 7th Amendments. From that point forward we had the right to have our peers settle disputes and establish penalties rather than depending solely upon the "establishment" to protect our life, liberty and property.
One of the only pictures I have seen of my grandfather was taken while he was serving on a jury. Several years ago, in simpler times, court days and jury service were social events for the community. Folks went to watch and were interested in what happened in the courts. Finding jurors was not as problematic. Since that time, however, our lives have gotten "busier" and service has gone from an honor to a burden. Another factor is a lack of respect for the court system (and I admit lawyers have some of the blame for this), but that is the subject for another post.
Pulaski County has been fortunate to have many wonderful citizens whom have served on jury duty in the last few yeas that I have been practicing here. Included in those number have been workers whom have come from late night shifts to early morning service. The have been old and young alike. We have had doctors. We have had lawyers. We have even had a couple of judges and the County Attorney serve on jury duty. No one is immune from service.
If you are called to serve, please remember the case you are there for is just as important to the participants as your time is to you. The matter would not be resolved without you. Most of the cases that I try are mental health disability trials. To me, these cases particularly outline the importance of jury service. These matters are for individuals who are no longer able to make informed decisions about their own welfare. If they have failed to plan for this, there is only one way to get help. Someone must petition to become their guardian and have the person declared disable. In Kentucky, the only way to do this is with a trial by jury. Without jury service, these individuals would not be able to take care of their personal, medical and financial affairs on their own and there would be no one to help them. Further, there is a jury of their peers to make the determination if the person is disabled and should lose their decision making powers rather than leaving this decision to a lawyers and medical personnel to make that decision for them. This is truly an important and unique safeguard that would not be possible without jury service.
To those that have served on a term on the jury panel, the legal system owes you thanks. For those of you who wonder why you have to serve, I hope this can explain some of the history and importance of jury service. We couldn't do it without you.