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Why do we have jury duty?

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Yesterday, they almost sat me on a jury to hear a DUI case. Periodically, as an upstanding American citizen, I get a notice in the mail telling me that it is my privilege in our democracy to serve on a jury and “this is your lucky week.” I don’t know where along the line we ever connected our de…
By Seth Barnes

Yesterday, they almost sat me on a jury to hear a DUI case. Periodically, as an upstanding American citizen, I get a notice in the mail telling me that it is my privilege in our democracy to serve on a jury and “this is your lucky week.”

I don’t know where along the line we ever connected our democratic form of government with requiring 20 productive citizens to drop everything in their lives for a week in order to hear an argument about whether our policemen are correctly administering Breathalyzer tests. Can’t a video provide adequate evidence? Can’t a judge handle that verification process by himself?

They had to pick the six of us who would be most impartial. They asked if any of us had ever had any bad experiences with the law. So, I raised my hand. They wanted to know my story. Well, I had two stories, both when I was about 18 years old. Here’s the first one I shared with the court:

Dirk, David and I were driving through a remote section of Texas at night on our way back from a 48-hour drive to Acapulco from Chicago.

It was late, the road was empty, and I was asleep in the back seat when a cop pulled us over for speeding (about 20 mph too fast). He made us follow him back to his police station in his little town miles in the opposite direction. Our situation afforded the cops on duty some apparently needed comic relief from the tedium of policing the empty roads at midnight.

“Boys, how much money do you have?”

It wasn’t much. We emptied our pockets.

“Not enough I see. Well, you have really done it this time! You could be out back digging fence post holes for us for days.” He drew the words out with a sneer designed to terrorize us. “What else do you have of value?”

I had bought my dad a minor gift on the Acapulco beach – a money clip. We were poor students doing this trip on a shoe string. I showed it to the cop.

“Boy, that’s not going to be near enough,” he said with a thick Texas drawl.

Eventually, they tired of the game, took all our cash and the money clip and let us go. The gas gauge showed below empty and we barely made it into Houston where Dirk’s aunt gave us enough money to buy gas to get us back to Chicago.

What bearing all this has on democracy seemed to get lost in the process.

My second story involved a couple of policemen taking me to the station on suspicion of being a fugitive cop-killer who also happened to be named Seth Barnes.

Needless to say, they didn’t pick me to be a part of that jury, though they were fascinated by my stories. Here’s my point: frequently in life, we apply a flawed process (jury duty for DUI’s) to a high ideal (democracy). It is especially prevalent in the realms of government and religion. We all need to ask, “How did we get so far a field?” more often.

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