Is there a Case for Jury Duty?
Tibor R. Machan
Randy Cohen, the all wise ?ethicist? of The New York Times Magazine,
berates a reader in his April 23, 2006, column who suggests, ever so
mildly, that perhaps she should not have been forced to serve on a jury.
Perhaps she even meant to suggest to pay her way out, leaving someone
poorer to serve, though she didn?t say this explicitly.
There are good reasons for subpoenas?namely, when a witness is uniquely
required to achieve justice (say he or she is an expert or has personal
knowledge that will advance the pursuit of justice). Citizenship commits
one to contribute to the search for justice if no other way is possible.
But juries aren?t made up of such folks. Any reasonable adult and sane
person can serve perfectly satisfactorily on a jury. And to suggest that
buying such service is wrong is to impugn virtually all commerce.
In commerce there is always some exploitation?in the perfectly good sense
of ?making use of.? I go to a shoe store and they exploit my desire for a
pair so they may be better off after I purchase it (they have plenty of
shoes so they want my money, instead). I, in turn, have the money but lack
the shoes they have, so I, too, am exploiting them. Or my barber, grocer,
watch repairer, handy man, or gardener. There is never any equality in
trade?indeed there would be no trade with equality?and much of it occurs
among people with drastically different economic standing.
If a person with serious family, professional or related responsibilities
or plans wants to have another paid to serve on a jury in his or her
stead, this is, pace Mr. Cohen, perfectly ethical. It is, sadly, not
permitted by judges who are smitten with the ideal of equality. But they
are wrong?equality is only required in how the law is enforced, namely, no
one may be treated unfairly. But there is nothing unfair about paying
someone to serve on a jury when one would have better things to do.
If there is some emergency and no one will take the offered price for
such service, then, perhaps, insisting on participation makes some sense,
although that too is questionable since even if I haven?t the money to pay
for the shoes, I am not justified in taking it without the owner?s
permission. But the problem isn?t likely to arise in most places where
there would be many people willing to serve?folks who are not very busy,
older folks, unemployed ones, those on vacation, eager beavers who want to
take part in the legal system, and so forth.
Unfortunately the woman who wrote to Cohen gave a weak argument in
support of her case. She mentioned that ?it?s more efficient for society
if I work, pay taxes, support charities and leave jury duty to others.?
If it were a bona fide duty to serve, all this would not matter. If I
steal your money, I may well make better use of it than you yet it would
still be wrong. And what does ?for society? mean anyway when millions of
people make it up with drastically varied goals and purposes?
No, the reason jury duty is wrong is that it coerces people. Yes, the
idea behind the 12 men and women, honest and true, is that they would be
something of a cross section of the people who make up the community, but
that?s really an illusion. No 12 people can do this. A much better
justification is that the 12 people are at least a reasonably sized group
for purposes of addressing?discussing, scrutinizing, debating?the issues
involved in reaching a rational verdict. And people are screened anyway,
whether they would wish to be on jury or not, so radically ill prepared
folks will not get on anyway.
Of course, Cohen and his ilk are completely seduced by the idea of public
service?this is the mantra of folks who love to subdue others, subjugate
them to serve goals they consider noble. These are the folks who see
nothing wrong with conscription, with eminent domain laws, with taxation,
or with any other imposition on individuals for ?the public good.?
Yet in nearly every case the public good in question turns out to be some
good for some select few. The only real public good, in fact, is the
protection of everyone?s basic, unalienable rights. And among those rights
is the right to liberty which is violated with someone is coerced to serve
on a jury.