On jury duty

The thing that everyone tries to avoid which is actually awesome

August 4, 2016
Jonathan Libov

Earlier today I completed my jury duty on a state criminal trial. It was the first time I had ever been called for jury duty, let alone participated as a juror on a trial. What an incredibly rewarding experience it was.

When I told people (many of whom I had to cancel meetings with) that I was on jury duty, most replied, "You know you can easily get out of it, right?". To that point, I missed a week of work, had to postpone a bunch of things, and spent a lot of time just waiting around for the court to be ready for us.

Yet I would strongly encourage people to flout the conventional wisdom to make something up so you can get out of it. Instead, answer the questions from jury selection honestly so that you might get the opportunity to serve. Serving as a juror is not a burden; quite the opposite, it's an opportunity in line with the many other things that steal us away from work: vacations, side projects, lunch. Americans are very work-oriented—it's one of the reasons why our economy is so productive—and yet like vacations, side projects, and lunch, taking time to do those things, away from your desk, makes you feel and think and act better as a person and a worker.

Trials are truly a thing to behold. I often look around the world to see how irrational and sometimes crazy humans are, and marvel that we ever managed to form a functioning society. Yet a trial is remarkable because it transforms real world events into brutal but beautiful logic. Were everything in the world scrutinized and argued the way criminal indictments are, the social sciences would be on par with the amazing feats we've accomplished in the hard sciences.

As a jury, we were immediately unanimous on seven of the ten charges and spent the majority of our deliberations on three of the ten charges. I was proud of everyone in the room that no one made a gross character assessment that entailed a presumption of guilt or innocence across all the charges. It required a level of sustained intellectual rigor and fairness that one often doesn't experience for a week at a time.

The judge was an exemplar of how to lead an organization — what else is a trial but an ad hoc organization? — with authority and grace. The attorneys exhibited how to form an argument, in both style and substance. And the court, by means of the judge's instructions to the jury, was both adamant and crystalline in the presumption of innocence. At a time when many of us are skeptical that that principle survives in our criminal justice system, perhaps rightly so, it was affirmational to get to participate in giving someone what I believe and hope was a fair trial.

Last but not least, I loved fraternizing with my fellow jurors in the interludes between our duty. We talked about our lives, our favorite restraurants, how the neighborhoods in Manhattan have changed over the years, how in 1973 the late upper level of the Westside Highway collapsed at 14th Street under the weight of a dump truck that shouldn't have been driving there, and how, as recently as the 1990's, the streets in the Meatpacking District were slimy from the runoff of the actual meatpacking plants that once resided there. The woman to my left worked part-time for a sample sale business and became a rabid hockey fan on account of her kids. The man to my right is a retired sound technician for film and television. He worked on a film from the 1980's called Alphabet City, which was shot on scene, in Alphabet City (then a down and out neighborhood, now a hot one), where he had worked as a locksmith in the 1960's. Put a diverse set of 12 people in a room with an interesting task to complete and no internet access (our phones were removed during deliberation) and you'll likely have 12 people enjoying each other's company in a way that would never happen if they weren't forced to do it.

I work in a highly intellectually engaging environment, and yet I observed and experienced things during my time in court that are, at best, uncommon to acknowledge while you're in the midst of the grind. At a time when people are working to ensure that companies don't discourage their employees from voting because they have to work that day, I would strongly encourage many to reconsider the stigma that jury duty is something you get out of, largely because you have to work. As a juror you get to experience and observe things — leadership, persuasion and the art of dispassionate judgment — and practice things — logical inference, reason, and responsibility to make a decision that will have an enormous effect on another person's life — that you don't often get to experience in the office, particularly if you’re a lower-level employee. These are things that can only make you more skilled and responsible as a person, within and without the office where we spend so much of our time.