As we pause this Memorial Day to honor the brave American men and women who gave their lives for our freedom, we ought to reflect on ways we can repay our debt to them. One of the simplest ways we can honor their sacrifice is to fulfill one of our obligations as a citizen of this great country – to serve on a jury when called.
Unfortunately, too many Americans avoid jury service when they are called to serve. Nationally less than half of Americans even show up for jury service when they are summoned, and many other Americans see a jury summons as a test of their escape skills, rather than an opportunity to have a positive impact on our nation’s civil justice system. This is a trend that cannot be sustained and imposes a burden on our judicial system that cannot be allowed to continue.
The right to a trial by jury, after all, is one of the fundamental freedoms Americans have fought – and died – for since the founding of our Republic, and a fair civil justice system has always been a hallmark of a just society. James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, fought hard for the inclusion of what became our Sixth and Seventh Amendments – assuring us a "jury of our peers" in criminal and civil trials. Madison believed the jury trial would promote fairness and protect us from tyranny.
He knew it is not the judge or the lawyers who hold the most important role in the courtroom, it is the jury, which must weigh the facts and evidence in each case and render a just verdict. A jury must ensure only the guilty are convicted, and only the deserving receive compensation from those who caused injury. In short, the jury must deliver justice. When citizens avoid jury service, the quality of justice is diminished.
In today’s legal environment, a jury of reasonable citizens also serves as a check on abuse of the legal system. Prudent juries can help put an end to frivolous lawsuits that clog our courts, and out-of-control settlements that plague our legal system and drive jobs from Texas.
Our elected leaders have also demonstrated their support for those who serve on juries. In 2005, the Texas Legislature voted to drastically increase juror pay from $6 per day to $50 – the first raise in juror pay in more than 50 years. This pay raise was meant to increase juror participation and bring more jury representation to minorities, and is even more than the $40 offered by the federal government for jury service in federal court.
While no one is arguing that jury service is quick and easy, it is undoubtedly one of the most important contributions citizens can make to this nation. There is no doubt that most of us would prefer to spend our time in other ways, rather than serve on a jury. However, the minor inconvenience of jury duty pales in comparison to the great sacrifices that American men and women have made to defend our freedom.
So as you prepare for a three day weekend, remember that Memorial Day is more than just a day off of work and the start of the summer season. This important holiday can serve as a reminder that the duty to defend democracy and justice belongs to its citizens, both on the battlefield and at home.
Koenning is President of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse-Houston. CALA is a nonprofit, grassroots public education movement dedicated to raising awareness about the cost and consequences of lawsuit abuse. The movement is supported by more than 25,000 Texans. For more information, visit www.calahouston.org