John Gastil | Law Day recognizes importance of juries

May 1, 2014 

The first of May holds a special, if forgotten, meaning in the United States.

The date marks Law Day, first established in 1957 to acknowledge the importance of the rule of law in American society.

The occasion, which is meant to celebrate achievements and aspirations in regard to freedom, justice and equality, also gives us the chance to reflect on the features of our legal system that we take for granted.

One legal institution, in particular, invites the participation of every citizen. Unlike most countries in the world, every day the United States turns important criminal and civil questions over to juries.

Though your chance of receiving a summons on any given day remains small, the odds are good that at least once, if not many times, your municipal, county or federal courthouse will come calling.

In Centre County, the Arnold Addison Courthouse delivers those summons notices to jurors and processes new arrivals every week.

These prospective jurors get a quick orientation, then wait to see if they will get called to serve in a trial that will typically last two days, or a week at most. Some will serve longer, but most jurors serve briefly on cases that never make the news.

A team of researchers has chronicled the experiences of thousands of jurors in the U.S., and they have found that jurors commonly experience the kind of inspiration Law Day meant to celebrate.

After merging voter-registration data with records from courthouses across the country, the authors were able to show that serving on a jury routinely increased a juror’s future voting rate. Those who had previously avoided most elections started voting about 5 percent more often after just a single stint of deliberating on a criminal jury.

This electoral effect of jury service held true even for those who ended up on hung juries. And research presented at the last Empirical Legal Studies conference show, that civil jurors also can get inspired in this way, particularly if serving on a full-sized jury that requires unanimity for a verdict.

If a 5 percent boost sounds small, consider that such an impact makes juries the envy of any get-out-the-vote organizer that has ever tried to boost voter turnout. The net effect is comparable to a full year of service in student government or a semester-long civics course.

It seems that nothing inspires as much as real service.

A yearlong survey of more than 1,000 jurors in a single county even showed that the jury can change citizens’ attitudes and behavior in more complex and subtle ways.

Jury service — and even a brief jury orientation — bolsters the public’s confidence in the judiciary, though (no surprise) this renewed respect does not extend to jurors’ attitudes toward Congress.

Jurors often come away with more interest in community affairs. Those who talk about their experience, as most do, become more active in civic and nonpartisan groups. Those who preside over “guilty” verdicts often choose to increase their subsequent participation in charitable work.

Such is the complex weave of our legal system and our local community that Law Day helps us celebrate.

When next summoned to serve, consider doing so not only out of obligation but also from an eagerness to join those who found the experience not just satisfying, but positively inspiring.

John Gastil is a professor of communication arts and sciences and political science at Penn State and director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy..

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