Welcome to Jury Duty

The other week I got that notice in the mail - the reminder about jury duty. “Report by 8:30 am to the Lawrence District Courthouse”, with the questionnaire on the back, and everything. I complained ceaselessly for a few days. I had a big assignment at work due the same day, my husband-to-be was leaving that morning, and isn’t jury duty just this thing we’re forced into when we attain the all-powerful age of 18?

I was frustrated about it my entire drive to Lawrence, through unknown parts of North Andover and Georgetown, through unrecognizable streets even though I’ve lived here for 23 years, that is to say, my whole life. I parked, still grumbling, made my way into the building.

I was first curious because of the people. There were three different pregnant women, two men who looked like they had walked in from the office, a couple of teenagers in grey sweatshirts, me in my haphazard rain jacket and Ugg boots, and an older woman with an advanced knitting pattern. Some people read Glamour or National Geographic; some had brought books; some had thought of granola bars or coffee.

We had nothing in common but that we were all asked to come to the same place to perform the same task - be the peers that judge another member of our community, resolve a dispute by hearing evidence, mete out justice.

I don’t know any of the other jurors, and they don’t know me, and yet somehow, we are asked to do this thing together, because even though I don’t know their towns and I don’t know their families, I am in community with them. We are, together, part of the community of the county, of the state, of the country.

We talk a lot about community but rarely about the community that is found in a juror room; the community of the law. The community formed by our living and abiding in a particular place under particular laws, the community that is built by our doing justice according to those laws, be it in their writing, their reforming, their execution, their judgment.

The law binds us together. The pregnant women and me, the woman with her knitting and the man in the scuffed brown boots reading People magazine from three weeks ago. And while we are quick to take sides, asking, who is a Democrat? who is a Republican? which laws do we or don’t we support? - we are slow to recognize that in a courthouse the community is predicated not on our agreement with the law but our common responsibility to uphold it, to render justice through it.

They said in the informational video we watched that jury duty is an oft-forgotten part of the civil rights movement - the counterpart of the right to vote. In fact, in Massachusetts, women weren’t even afforded the right to sit on a jury until long after they had received the right to vote through the 19th Amendment. I was surprised by this, probably mostly because I rarely think of jury duty as a privilege, or as an opportunity to exercise my membership in a community. I mostly think of it as a drag, something to be gotten through.

Maybe I’m writing this piece to try and rethink that.

That day we were dismissed early, as all the cases set for trial were resolved out of court. But as I drove back to work, thinking about sitting in that room with people I will never see again, I wondered if I have been missing a kind of community that’s more important and more precious: the community of citizens.

The community that renders judgment on its peers, by its peers. The community that sits in a room with knitting and granola bars that take on a special meaning when you think about how we, gathered together, are living out what it means to live and abide under the law.

And perhaps this is the community I should think of when I next get a notice in my mailbox welcoming me to jury duty.

 -Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt