What Jury Duty Taught Me About Life | The BridgeMaker

What Jury Duty Taught Me About Life

By on May 08, 2013


jury duty

When you judge another, you do not define them. You define yourself. – Wayne Dyer

Many years ago when I was young, I got summoned for jury duty. Summoned — that’s an interesting word. It doesn’t mean invited, or requested, or even compelled. It means ordered.

I didn’t like being ordered around, being a testosterone-laden young lad.

However the downside seemed to be a bit troublesome, so I went. After sitting in a roomful of equally impatient people for the better part of a day, whoever was in charge came out and said that all juries were filled for the day and we were all dismissed.

We all high-fived each other that we didn’t get stuck on some weeks-long trial and relished in the (newly acquired) knowledge that, having shown up, we were now back at the bottom of the jury call list.

First Lesson

Cooperation has its long term benefits, even if there is a short term cost.

Being at the bottom of the list didn’t mean off the list. So a few years later I was summoned again.

I was a bit older but still young. I had more responsibilities (a wife and a baby) and I was the only breadwinner in the family. Some suggested that I could probably ask to be dismissed just for that reason.

It was true that I didn’t want to be on a jury. However, that was not my reason.

Call it my spiritual outlook at that time, but I couldn’t see myself sitting in judgment of another man. The case we had been called for was for a nineteen year old who was accused of armed robbery. The judge sternly warned us to take this case very seriously because the future of this young man was at stake.

One by one, people in the jury pool asked to be excused. One by one, the judge shot them down.

One man said his company couldn’t do without him. The judge asked if the company had been in business before it employed him. He said yes. So the judge said they did it before, they can do it again.

One woman said she had children. He asked: Are they in school? Do you have a husband? She said yes. He said there are plenty of single parent families getting along; your husband can handle it.

On it went.

I was (and still am, I suppose) a rather conservative looking white male. I was sitting in the back row in a suit and a tie. Next to me was what I imagine you could say was an older version of me. We were looking at the defendant: a shackled young black man in a jailhouse orange jumpsuit.

As I was pondering what I was going to say to this hard-nosed judge, the man next to me leaning over and whispered, “I wonder what he did.”

That knocked me out of my reverie.

I had been looking at the sad-faced kid on trial but now I looked at this man. Everybody thinks this is the man I am going to be in 25 years.

He’s probably an upstanding citizen. He keeps his lawn mowed and his car in good repair. He shows up for work every day and doesn’t take home the paperclips.

And I disliked him.

I disliked him for those five little words. I looked him in the eye and replied, “Maybe nothing. That’s why there’s a trial.”

When my turn came, I told the judge simply that my conscience would not allow me to sit in judgment of another man.

He replied, “So it’s a conscience matter?”

I said, “Yes, your honor.”

He ruled directly, “I’ll excuse you.”

And so I walked out of that courtroom with a bunch of envious eyes upon me.

Second Lesson

Be true to yourself and it will all work out.

I pondered a lot after that. Could I really not weigh the facts and make a call?

After all, the American justice system requires that guilt be found only “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

I was reasonable. Couldn’t I just use my head?

I decided that yes, yes I could. If I ever got called again, I determined I would not ask to be excused. Of course, I would have been a defense attorney’s dream come true.

But that wasn’t my call. Let them dismiss me, I wasn’t going to dismiss myself.

It has been 25 years. I have never been called again.

Third Lesson

Growth doesn’t necessarily mean getting more hard line, in fact it is often just the opposite.

The years have continued to roll and I continue to grow. I respect those who are willing to serve their community in various capacities.

Sometimes they are open to doing things that I would not be open to doing. Of course some people would like to be on a jury because they want to punish someone, anyone.

Some folks would like to be a police officer so they could order people around at the point of a gun. Fortunately, such motives don’t prevail but they are sadly too common. We all have to check our intent.

Today, I am back to my original stand, if for far different reasons. I believe that not only do we have no right to sit in judgment of others; we are profoundly unqualified to do so.

Wait, don’t I have far more life experience than the 23-year-old me that first got called? Of course. That’s why I am now certain of this.

I have written elsewhere about assessment vs. judgment, so you could say that I grasp that I could make a call about a case. I make such calls every day, we all do.

But judgment is another matter.

I will leave such duties to those whose clear consciences allow them to carry them out with their best intentions. I have a notion that as I continue on this path of growth and expansion, one day I will return and be willing to sit on a jury of my peers.

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  • Randy Rosenblatt

    Ken:

    Thank you for the post.
    You never addressed this oddly contrary and ironic series of sentences:

    “He’s probably an upstanding citizen. He keeps his lawn mowed and his car in good repair. He shows up for work every day and doesn’t take home the paperclips.

    And I disliked him.

    I disliked him for those five little words. I looked him in the eye and replied, “Maybe nothing. That’s why there’s a trial.”

    When my turn came, I told the judge simply that my conscience would not allow me to sit in judgment of another man.”

    You were excused for your inability to sit in judgment of another man, yet at that very moment you were judging another man.

    How do you explain that apparent discrepancy? Perhaps in the one case you were being “ordered” to judge, and in the other you were offering unsolicited judgment on your own free will? Two sides of the same coin?

    Thanks again.

  • Hello Kenneth –
    I admire your standpoint. And, usually it’s those who know that they’re not ready to participate in such kind of judgement who would be the best to do it (since someone’s going to do it anyway).

    Some of the widows whose stories I hear these days have experienced that their husband has been murdered. I think they would prefer you, or someone like you, to be in the jury.

    Let me illustrate it with another example. When I was young I studied psychology. Early on I decided that this wasn’t how I wanted to proceed. So I dropped out and never looked back, even if creating a life-long self-study was so much more demanding. And: I have a friend who, unlike me, finished her studies. For many years now she has been working in psychiatric ward, the kind of traditional places that most of us would fear. And, I’m so glad she’s there. I’m so glad people like her are right there, in what is hell for many people.

    So who knows… There is no easy solution to any of these questions. Except perhaps, we just have to do what feels right for each of us at any time. Whether we can explain it or not.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story – it’s a pleasure to meet you.

    • I loved where you said “whether we can explain it or not”. Some knowingness comes from a place without words. It transcends reason. Reason is a gift but intuition is a greater one.