January has been a dizzying month for leadership, eh? Saber-rattling by the world’s major powers was in the news regularly, as the closely watched Trump spoke out provocatively on China, Russia, Israel, Mexico, coal, climate, immigration, trade and other topics in media broadsides. The nations or parties implicated responded with outrage, while those favored were cautiously positive. Tom Friedman posted his New York Times column on the 25th from refuge in London, declaring ‘even from here I have vertigo.’
In the midst of all this flurry in the first month of the new year, I was called to perform the classic civic responsibility assigned at birth or naturalization to all United States citizens – jury service – and thought immediately, Oh no, what a bother: how can I get out of this? We’ve all watched the crime shows and seen the news coverage, from which we of course form ready opinions about guilt or innocence, and we all know it’s our duty to respond when called, but do our daily lives really have room for Judge Judy? I didn’t think so. This duty was not optional, however, and if citizenship must be earned by some, I figured it should be earned by all.
So, with mild trepidation I trudged on a Monday morning mid-month to the US District Court in downtown Boston and queued up for the pat down at security. My lawyer friend Rich had armed me, as a self-employed consultant whose gainful work would cease while in the jury box, with possibly magic words (“economic hardship”); as the court minions packed me and 149 of my peers into a large waiting area overlooking Boston Harbor, I browsed the newspapers I’d brought with me and idly practiced my speech.
The court system anticipates these sorts of maneuvers though, and shortly began a steady barrage of counter-programming designed to unseat the firmest convictions of self-interest. Upon reporting for duty, each member of the jury pool is given the ‘Handbook for Trial Jurors Serving in the United States District Courts,’ whose opening sentences sound the lofty ideals taught in civics classes: ‘The protection of our rights and liberties is largely achieved through the teamwork of judge and jury who, working together in a common effort, put into practice the principles of our great heritage of freedom.’ Strong stuff! I checked my calendar and thought ahead to the meetings scheduled over the course of the week. Lots to do.
Everyone now seated comfortably, a short movie was announced. The lights were dimmed slightly and ‘Called to Serve’ appeared on the monitors at the front, followed by music and a montage of ordinary people I didn’t recognize, with lines of text floating across the screen that channel the thoughts of everyone in the room: ‘Why me?’ ‘What do I have to decide?’ ‘What if I can’t make up my mind?’ Okay. I’m paying attention.
The music stops and there is Chief Justice John Roberts with, you guessed it, the call to serve: “The right to a jury trial is guaranteed by the 6th and 7th Amendments to the US Constitution; but that right would mean little if people like you were not willing to take time from their busy lives to serve on a jury …your role is vital for promoting justice and preserving liberty …I hope you find it interesting as well as satisfying to be one of the guarantors of our freedom.”
I look around me at the captive audience. The authorities have wisely barred electronics from the building, so no one is assuming the prayerful position over a smartphone that has become such a familiar aspect of any crowd scene. The paper shuffling has stopped as well, and all eyes are pointed toward the head of the class for the next twenty minutes as a succession of former jurors and Supreme Court Justices is called to bear witness to the importance and integrity of the jury process.
By the time it’s done I am off the sidelines and sitting squarely on the fence. This process sounds fascinating, highlighted by the interviews of former jurors who found it emotionally rewarding. The daily mental clutter of incendiary Trump comments and fervid media reactions is beginning to recede as Judge William Young takes the podium to add a personal touch to the institutional welcoming of us prospective jurors.
His speech adds meaningful color to the call: ‘the most robust form of direct democracy in history is the American jury …90% of the jury trials on the planet are here in the United States …the 6th Amendment says ‘the trial of all crimes, save for impeachment, shall be by jury;’ that’s why you’re here ……you will be a constitutional officer equal to the judge; you are the embodiment of those constitutional guarantees ….Every single trial is both a test and a celebration of the right of a free people to govern themselves.’
Lofty stuff indeed, and I conduct a quick self-examination. With the integrity of both the executive and legislative branches of government under daily attack simultaneously from the left and the right, I’ve got the chance to serve in the judicial branch as ‘a constitutional officer equal to the judge’ and do something that is above reproach, that is unassailably the right thing to do; do I understand that correctly?
My worries about time away from the office shrink in comparison. Would-be citizens will likely face fresh hurdles to their aspirations in the coming months as the Trump administration erects fences at our borders and tightens restrictions on entry. I can at least get off the fence and be ready to serve.
An hour later I am amongst 40 or so called to Judge Young’s courtroom as a panel of prospective jurors in the criminal trial of a Nigerian national on drug smuggling charges. Judge Young tells us the trial is expected to last about a week, and takes us through an orderly process extending over two hours where a jury is selected. I am excused from service by a peremptory challenge that ‘is no reflection upon my ability or integrity,’ but simply the judgment of counsel that different jurors would be more appropriate for the trial of this defendant by a jury of his peers. I am relieved I don’t have to turn my schedule upside down, but sad about the lost opportunity for citizen service.
The lessons here for leaders are intriguing. How do you inspire in your employees that same emotional attachment to ‘citizenship’ in your organization that the jury selection process activates in potential jurors for national citizenship? Like the motivating video and words of Judge Young, does it start with communicating the foundational principles and beliefs of your company? Many companies have statements of mission and values that address these sorts of questions; maybe it’s time to take them from the shelf, dust them off and refresh your employees’ engagement with them.
Can you more fully identify the ways in which your product or service contributes to the wellbeing of your customers, thus communicating a higher calling? Is there an analogue to jury service that you might develop? E.g. a panel of employees who are selected every year to determine awards that recognize employees who most exemplify the company’s values.
Perhaps a discussion of the jury process itself would prove valuable within your company. Reinforcing the value and obligations of citizenship is a useful end, in these times or any other.
All food for thought I hope! You can access the resources referenced above at the US District Court’s website. Find the Handbook for Trial Jurors here. Find the ‘Call to Serve’ video here. And a video of Judge Young’s welcoming comments here.
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org