Monday, March 16, 2009

Avoiding jury duty -- again

I just got back home from another day of being called but not having to serve on jury duty. It took longer than it sometimes has, in that I was among a pool asked to report to a second location where they apparently hold civil trials, after lunch. Although they didn't tell us why we were dismissed for another year, it was probably because the attorneys in the case decided to settle -- or not to go to trial the next day.

It was nowhere near so dramatic as the last time I was called. I got very close to going on a trial in which, from what I could tell, I would probably have voted to convict. But when they asked the key question -- will you follow and abide by the law as explained by the judge scrupulously and without exception? -- I said I probably would but I couldn't guarantee it. That's because I believe as a juror and a free American I have the right to interpret the law myself, and if I think applying it in a specified way will lead to an injustice, I have the right to vote according to my conscience rather than according to the law and the judge's instructions.

The prosecuting attorney and I then had about a five-minute colloquy, in which I explained that as a newspaperman I was especially attached to this right of jurors because of my belief that the jurors who voted not to convict John Peter Zenger (I won an award named after him a few years ago) of libeling the government in colonial America led to our freedom of the press. However juries are instructed now, this is a proud tradition that also resulted in many slaves not being returned to their masters when slavery was still the law in part of the country. This all took place in front of a large courtroom filled with prospective jurors. He asked if I had ever heard of "jury nullification," and I said had, of course, though I preferred the term "jury rights." He then asked the judge to dismiss me for cause but the judge, who seemed quite amused by the whole proceeding, declined to do so, and he had to use one of his peremptories to dismiss me as I was walking toward the jury box. I don't know if saying similar things would have gotten me dismissed in a civil case.

I don't recommend doing this yourself unless you really believe in it and know a little more about it. A good source of information is the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) and Cato's book titled "Jury Nullification."

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