Lanterns: Is Jury Duty Involuntary Servitude?


Is Jury Duty Involuntary Servitude?

Every day in America, millions of law-abiding citizens are compelled, under threat of jail-time and other penalties, to leave their homes, jobs, and personal responsibilities to sit in a room for hours, if not all day. If that prospect is not painful enough, some will actually have to put their lives on hold and sit on a jury, possibly for weeks, sequestered from home and family. All this for a few dollars a day, and again, under threat of jail time. 

Is jury duty just a small price for living in a free, self-governing society, or an outdated civic ritual that qualifies as involuntary servitude? 

In our hyper-discussive, "what-about-my-rights" society, we remain surprisingly mum on this subject. Even libertarians, who oppose all government compulsion, would rather rant about abolishing the SEC than this actual nuisance plaguing countless Americans every day.

Action to abolish mandatory jury duty has never gained traction, in part, because of its very random nature. Since masses of Americans are not simultaneously taken from their homes at gunpoint, we tend to regard it as a personal irritation. Anyone determined to avoid service will likely find a way out. Thus, we are more irritated than outraged that our routines were interrupted.

I am not here to make the case that our jury system be abolished, though I think the concept of revision bears discussion. Since most of us view the process through the prism of our own experiences, here's mine. I am living paycheck-to-paycheck in a part-time economy, dependent upon a job that does not pay for days off. I sit for hours-on-end in a room with about fifty other people. We are herded in like cattle and not allowed to leave. I hear cell phone conversations, mostly from business owners, apologizing to customers and clients. "Hopefully they won't keep me here long," is the common refrain. 

Certainly, this scene is played out in courtrooms throughout this country every day. I can't help longing for a national study on how much productivity is lost. The inconvenience, parking hassles, and the scrambling for child and elderly care would be incalculable. America has seen riots over the military draft, and anger over tax policy periodically reshapes our political hierarchy. Yet, jury duty is seen as just another annoyance in life, like standing in line at the DMV.

But, no one at the DMV threatens me with jail time. The entire jury process puts you under the foot of compulsion. The judge, I heard, told those he released from duty not to be too happy-- they could end up later on a three-week trial. Yes, law-abiding citizens are harassed and mocked for merely trying to live their lives. Yet, the judges who issue the warnings are making their livings, their routines, uninterrupted.

According to my scant research, almost no one is arrested for ignoring a jury summons (though it has happened). Most violators are cited and usually fined. I was not picked, so I walked out of the courtroom and on with my life, forgetting that the day before, I was outraged and ready to lead a revolution!

Even some libertarians support our jury system, citing our Constitutional right to a trial by a jury of our peers, as opposed to the whims and edicts of the state. Touché. 

However, unlike the 1700's, many feel little in common with their neighbors and those who would statistically qualify as their "peers." Really, I don't want my fate decided by anyone who considers TMZ a serious news source!

Why not a jury system that citizens have to opt into? Just as you register to vote, why don't we allow citizens to avail themselves to jury service? Some citizens, particularly retirees, who would like the opportunity to serve, are never called. Let's find these people, and leave the mothers, business owners, and those with transportation problems alone.

Conservatives and libertarians should have been leading this discussion years ago. Even those leading the charge for individual autonomy never think about this brand of compulsion till they are forced into a room and ordered to put their lives, and livelihoods, on hold for an indefinite period. 

While my day will proceed (relatively) free of blatant government compulsion, millions of my fellow citizens will not be so lucky. A truly free society is free, not just for me, but for those inconvenienced citizens I will never meet. 

Is this a discussion worth having? Don't ask me, ask them.

Written by David Bozeman

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