Jury system keeps 'self' in self-government

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By Rob Witwer

Last Tuesday I dutifully reported to the Jefferson County Taj Mahal to serve as a juror. As it turned out, after a video and some introductory remarks, I was among the group of people who wouldn’t be needed that day. So I, juror No. 1259, left the building having fulfilled my duty for the time being.

As Milton said, they also serve who only stand and wait.

But the experience renewed my belief in the jury system. While the jury summons is rarely a welcome presence in the mailbox, it’s also our most tangible reminder that we still live in a free society. The power of government is never so concentrated than in a criminal courtroom, where a citizen’s most basic rights — liberty and perhaps life — hang in the balance. For a defendant, the juror is more powerful than the president of the United States.

In many countries, “government” is something that exists apart from the people. Imagine the former Soviet Union, or Nazi Germany, or China. Such systems have no pretense, let alone practice, of citizen checks against the power of government functionaries to imprison or kill other human beings, often on a whim.

But thanks to the wisdom and foresight of our founders, American citizens are entitled to put themselves not at the mercy of their government, which may be prosecuting them, but in the hands of their peers. It’s a remarkable and under-noticed feature of our system of laws.

The jury system is reflective not only of American values, but American individualism. Looking around the jury room, I was struck by the diversity of the jury pool. Here were college students, retirees, people from several racial backgrounds and all socioeconomic walks of life. It was a true cross-section of Jefferson County, and truly more representative of the people than most elected government bodies.

We approached our duty as jurors with respectful solemnity and seriousness. Several of us would, at the conclusion of the jury selection process, hold in our hands the legal fate of another person. There is no more awesome power or responsibility for a citizen of this or any country.

So when you get that jury summons, remember you are being asked to serve as a bulwark against the unmitigated power of government. You are, temporarily, the “self” in “self-government.” In the process, you keep freedom’s light burning for one more day.

Rob Witwer is the state representative for House District 25, which encompasses most of western Jefferson County.