Jury Duty is Constitution Duty

Why Jury Duty Matters
A Citizen's Guide to Constitutional Action
By: 
Andrew Guthrie Ferguson
February 21, 2013
BookTalk

by Professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, assistant professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.

Every year approximately 30 million American citizens get an invitation to constitutional action in the form of a jury summons. Most dread this core constitutional obligation. Forgotten is the jury’s connection to American history from the Declaration of Independence to the Civil Rights Movement. Ignored are the meaningful, foundational lessons of citizen-jurors over two centuries. 

Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press 2013) was written to change that negative reaction to jury duty. This book is the first book written for jurors on jury duty and seeks to inspire an appreciation of this important American institution. It is a book that will make jury service personally meaningful and will strengthen constitutional literacy in America.

This book does much of what ACS does – translate constitutional ideas so that ordinary people can understand the importance of the Constitution. As a trial lawyer for nine years, I watched jurors every day in the courthouse. I witnessed how they missed the constitutional value of jury service. This book was my gift back to those citizens, and to the millions of future jurors who will serve in the coming years. It is a how-to book for democratic practice. It is a primer on constitutional principles. It is an argument for reclaiming the central place juries have played in our society. Professor Neil Vidmar wrote, “Copies should be placed in the jury assembly rooms of every courthouse.” Professor Nancy Marder, Director of the Jury Center at Chicago-Kent College of Law recommended, “Every court should give prospective jurors a copy of this book so that they will understand the jury’s integral role in our democracy.”

My hope is that Why Jury Duty Matters becomes a reference for every citizen called down to jury service who wants to make the experience meaningful – who wants to learn about the Constitution, its history, text, principles, and relevance to daily life. It is a book that walks you through the constitutional lessons built within the jury process and shows why they are important for democracy. These are the foundational principles of our character – participation, deliberation, fairness, equality, dissent, accountability, liberty, and the common good. These are constitutional values, but they are also a part of the experience of being a juror – they are literally built into the structure of the court system.

A constitutional democracy requires self-government. We have to participate in it. We have to act.  Jury duty is one opportunity to act. In fact, it is a requirement. It is a practice run for other forms of democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville likened juries to free public schools, always open to teach the skills of democracy. And they still are. Jury service remains our only mandatory constitutional duty. It is a weighty responsibility. Ordinary citizens are given extraordinary power – to decide life or death, guilt or innocence, whether a company or government is held responsible for its wrongdoing. Yet, there is no prep class we take. No training. No prerequisite to go become a juror. So, self-education – reading is critical. To understand the lessons you have to study. To study you need a text. Why Jury Duty Matters is that text. 

Jury duty is a statement about America and Americans – about who we are expected to be as citizens. Jury duty is a common enterprise. We have to come together to do something for the common good. We have to purposely look to our community and represent that community. 

The jury is thought of as the community conscience. It was thought to build the civic virtue necessary for a working community and government. Think of those first words of the Constitution… “We the People”… “Do Ordain and Establish” – we have to do something. We have to be constitutional actors. Jury service was practice and proof that we can meet our constitutional responsibilities. After all, if we are entrusted to decide the fates of our fellow citizens, then we should also be entrusted to decide the future of the country.  

Every lawyer, judge, law professor, or law student will be asked at one time or another about jury service. Usually it is a family member or friend inquiring about the responsibilities of service (or trying to get out of it). This book answers the question of why jury duty matters. It answers it in a bold, patriotic argument that jury duty (when properly understood) is constitution duty, and we should be proud to be constitutional actors.