Fear Not, Citizens!

I spent yesterday doing my civic duty by attending to a Jury Summons.  An hour and a half waiting in the general jury room, then an hour and a half more walking through a long tunnel downtown to a Texas District Court, then standing and waiting in a hallway before finally being dismissed for the day with the thanks of the Court.

It’s just as well.  Although I would have been happy to serve on a seated jury, there’s always the possibility of getting caught up in a trial that lasts more than a day or two, and if that had happened, it would have been a major inconvenience.  Lawyers and their clients already know this.  That’s why we’ve developed the plea-bargain system in the western world to such a degree.  Better to take the deal than to take one’s chances with a jury that, in some sense, is ticked off before the trial ever begins.

I learned about our legal system, both civil and criminal, as an undergraduate Political Science major, and I was happy to do so.  It was a long time ago, though, and I most certainly don’t remember everything I was ever taught.  I do remember, however, feeling from the outset of my studies the enormous ambiguities and tensions of the American system.  As radical as the notion may be, I’ve never been a fan of weighting the system as we do in favor of defendants.  I know why we do it, of course, but I’m not happy with it.  If someone were to say to me, “Well, just wait until you are accused of a crime, and then you’ll be happy,” my answer would be maybe so, but I don’t intend to commit a crime; I’ve no reason to; and society is set up to do all it can to reduce the motivations for crime, but people commit them anyway.  The adversarial system is not the only means, or even the best means, by which to dispense justice.  There’s a variety of alternatives we could use, including arbitration, adjudication, judicial panels, and citizen review boards.  All of these alternative methods are in fact available and in use for many disputes that would be too time-consuming for the formal legal system to handle.  The main reason we don’t use them more often is the terror most lawyers feel at the idea of putting a case before a judge or a panel of judges whom, they believe, could be corrupt or simply unduly biased.

I’ve read a few of the glamour books about the legal system:  F. Lee Bailey’s The Defense Never Rests, which is good if you can see past Mr. Bailey’s enormous ego; Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, which is a heartbreaking study of some leukemia victims’ lawsuit against chemical companies in Massachusetts for polluting the water; and, most winningly, Vincent Bugliosi’s classic prosecution of the Manson case, Helter-Skelter, which corrects many of the imbalances you’ll find in the defense-oriented books available in your local bookstore or online.

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2 thoughts on “Fear Not, Citizens!

  1. It’s funny–my last jury experience was long ago, in New York State, and what I remembered most clearly is sitting for hours, and being chastised for reading while doing so! No books allowed… It was a LONG day. Like you, John, the case I was called for was settled out of the courtroom.

    Your post makes me realize I have never read Helter Skelter…

  2. They have changed the rules down here in Texas. We can read (I don’t); and there’s even Wi-Fi. Jurors can bring vending machine food into the room if they want. The clerks and bailiffs are very pleasant, laughing and in a good mood, usually. They know how hard it is to sacrifice one’s work time by sitting and waiting.

    Bugliosi’s book is lovely and sad. Meticulous in its approach and detail, it’s one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. To be brutally honest, I have *never* understood the urge to make Charles Manson or his followers folk heroes. Bugliosi, in tracing the crimes to their roots, shows us quite clearly that they were and are about as far away from being worthy of admiration as it is possible to be–dangerously unstable, the whole lot of them. I ducked reading the book for many years because I just didn’t want all that violence in my head, but I had time during Katrina a decade ago to read it, and I was very glad I did.

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