Most everyone has to pay taxes, which is no fun. But beyond that, Americans aren't asked for much from their government. There is no military draft, beyond registering for the Selective Service, and voting is optional. Showing up for jury service is about the only active requirement of citizenship left. That's why Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder's decision this week to hold no-shows accountable is justified and should send a powerful message. Jury service is the least a person can do in exchange for the benefits of living in this country, and it is essential to the proper working of the justice system.
Holder decided to get tough with jurors who skipped jury duty Monday after he had trouble gathering a 22-person pool of prospective jurors for a trial. This kind of delay wastes judicial resources and taxpayer money. The difficulty stemmed from 387 people who were issued a summons but didn't show up, out of a total of 1,523. To those who were absent, Holder issued an order requiring them to appear at a hearing Nov. 4 and answer for skipping out on their civic duty. Those without a legitimate excuse could face a $100 fine or up to six months in jail, though it should not come to that.
But jury service is too often seen as an inconvenience to be resisted rather than as a duty and privilege of citizenship. When too many people blithely disregard their obligation, the courts cannot function.
It is worth remembering that the nation's founders thought juries an essential feature of the new republic. Requiring the input of citizens in criminal proceedings meant the government couldn't use the courts as a political tool to convict the innocent. In more recent times, women and African-Americans fought to be included on juries as a mark of equal rights.
Today, ignoring a jury summons may seem like a way to get out of the hassle of finding the courthouse, missing work and navigating an unfamiliar process. But exposure to the court system is a civics lesson in itself. Serving on a jury reminds citizens of the role they play in government and their duty to society at large. As the 19th century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville said, jury service "rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society."
Moreover, potential jurors receive a legally binding demand to appear, and those who flout the law breed contempt for it.
Modern life, as hectic as it is, must make room for this one civic responsibility, which usually lasts no more than a few days at most. Local courts in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties try to accommodate scheduling conflicts, giving people the chance to easily change an initial date to appear. Ultimately, though, jury service is an intrusion into most people's work and family life. Consider it a noble sacrifice for one's country, albeit a relatively small one.