Jury Duty: A Founding Principle of American Democracy

By United States District Court Judge Jack Zouhary

Judge As federal judges, my colleagues and I are privileged to host naturalization ceremonies.  We are always encouraged to see the eagerness of civically educated, new American citizens.  The steps they take to become citizens serve as a reminder of the importance of civics education.  For it is through education that we recognize the importance of participation in governance.

Our naturalization ceremonies provide an opportunity for the public to see and participate in civic life.  Over the last several years, we have taken ceremonies out of the federal courthouse and held them at a variety of locations throughout northwest Ohio, including outdoors at the Civic Center Mall, Fifth Third Field, and Sauder Village.  We have also visited numerous libraries, colleges, universities, high schools and elementary schools.  At schools, students often have a part in the ceremony, reading The New Colossus, playing in the band, singing in the choir, and giving short speeches about their own families and immigration experiences.  The ceremony itself is a lesson in geography and languages.  It is our hope that by participating in these ceremonies, our students come to understand and appreciate their birthright as deeply as our new citizens.

While naturalization ceremonies are a great way to showcase democracy in action, they are not enough.  The truth is that many Americans do not have a decent civics education.  David Labaree, professor of education at Stanford University, explores this problem in his book Someone has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling.  Labaree explains that in the last century and a half, the focus of public schools has shifted from promoting civic virtue to supporting social mobility.  This shift, already detrimental to civics teaching, is amplified by funding cuts that force school districts to focus limited resources on frequently tested core subjects, like math and reading.

The results are well documented.  In 2010, only 24% of high school seniors scored “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics test.  2014 was no better.  Citing funding, the test was only administered to eighth graders that year — only 23% of whom scored proficient.  In 2015, the Newseum Institute’s annual survey revealed that one-third of Americans could not identify any rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, and in a 2016 survey by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center, 74% of respondents could not name all three branches of government.  These results reflect a failing grade.

As a judge, I encounter a direct consequence of this lack of understanding in the form of jury avoidance.  When I read the flimsy excuses given by some notified of jury service, I cringe.  That is why, at the beginning of a trial, I give a short history lesson and explain why jury trials are one of our great civic responsibilities.  After years of widespread abuse by courts stacked with King George’s cronies, our Founders established the right to a jury trial.  The colonists wanted to ensure that members of their community would be responsible for safeguarding their liberty and rights.  Indeed, juries were so important to our country’s founding that King George’s attempt to deprive the colonies of a trial by jury was listed as an abuse of power in the Declaration of Independence.  The right to a jury trial was also codified in our Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments to the Constitution.  As John Adams wrote, “representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty.  Without them we have no fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hogs.”

Juries are a topic of great interest when judges from foreign countries — countries where there is no jury system, and where the courts are not an independent branch of government — visit our federal courts.  In The Evolution of the American Jury, Hans and Vidmar note that the United States holds 80% of all jury trials in the world.  The power of the American jury is by design.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote to Thomas Paine, “I consider the trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”  This is especially true of the United States whose Constitution, the oldest written one, begins, “We the People.”

While many jurors are not pleased when they receive a summons to report for jury duty, our exit questionnaires reveal that they, almost unanimously, find the experience a positive one.  We ask jurors to take that positive experience and share it with their families, neighbors and friends.  At federal court, our citizens leave with the kind of civic engagement our forefathers found to be so important.

Understanding our government, and our place in ensuring its viability, is essential to the democracy of tomorrow.  Jefferson also wisely observed that “whenever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”  Education is where it starts.  How can we expect the next generation to preserve and protect our institutions if they do not understand our American history?

Fortunately, a number of organizations have emerged to promote civics education.  For example, in 2009, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics.org, which offers free resources and learning tools for students and teachers, including interactive tutorials.  Justice O’Connor maintains that “[t]he practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool.  It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.”  Following Justice O’Connor’s example, I often offer to speak to junior high and high school students about the great American experiment in democracy.  And my colleagues and I encourage and welcome students to visit the courthouse to experience how our justice system really works — not the fiction of TV series or movies.

The Joe Foss Institute (joefossinstitute.org), another valuable resource, promotes civic education in schools and advocates requiring high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test as a requirement for graduation.  The website lists 100 questions every American should be able to answer.  This gives parents an opportunity to learn with their children about the meaning and value of citizenship and democracy.

The United States is the longest running experiment in self-government.  We have survived tough times, including a civil war, with institutions designed to share power and protect individual rights.  As John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, “we cannot insure success [in the Revolutionary War], but we can deserve it.”  Let us renew our efforts to promote civics education and encourage public service, sharing the story behind our common Constitution which bonds all Americans, past, present, and future. And let’s deserve it!