Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Right to Jury Service

by Katherine Scardino 

As I experience various things in my life, I usually sit down and tell all of you my feelings. This week, I experienced jury duty for the first time in many years. Although I did not get picked to actually sit on a jury, which I would have loved, the mere experience of showing up was something that got me to thinking about women and our right to even be in a jury room with a man.

Did you know that it was not until 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, that women were even allowed to vote? Isn't it amazing, looking back at all the accomplishments women have made over the last 100 years, to think that we were looked down upon as second class citizens. Remember the classic movie Twelve Angry Men, not six men and six women or some combination thereof, but a 100-percent male jury. Can you imagine living in a world where you were looked down upon based solely on the fact that you were unfortunately born female? In today’s world, it is hard to even imagine.

The passage of the 19th Amendment did not solve all the women’s issues of the time. It actually had surprisingly little impact on a women’s citizenship status or on the American constitutional order. Women believed that if they had the right to vote, then they would gain equal citizenship by being allowed to assert their political interests, such as serving on a jury. Jury service is democracy in action. Juries help to protect individual liberty and serve as an institution of self-government in which citizens 
apply the law to members of the community.

The amendment helped to lessen the distinctiveness between male and female citizenship, and gave women some recognition as public persons. But, it did not create equal citizenship for both sexes. The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1848, long before 1920. It was used, unsuccessfully, by women's rights advocates to claim both the right to vote and the right to serve on juries as protected rights of citizenship. Even as early as 1872, Susan B. Anthony and several other women went to their local polling places to attempt to vote. But, just as Rosa Parks was prosecuted for trying to use public transportation, Susan B. Anthony was prosecuted for casting an illegal ballot. At her trial, she was not allowed to testify nor was the all male jury allowed to judge her. Instead, they were directed by the Judge to deliver a verdict of guilty.

The liberal interpretation of the Constitution that Anthony hoped for was one in which voting, jury duty, and professional licensing were all among the privileges and immunities of national citizenship. Unfortunately, during her era, a jury of one’s peers excluded one-half of the population.

There is not enough space for me to outline the hard road that women before us have tread so that we may have the right to sit in a jury room and deliberate the fate of one of our peers in the community. I sat in the large gathering room this week and listened to conversations other people were having about why they were there. One woman was talking about the advice she had been given on how to get out of doing her civic duty. I thought about what Susan B. Anthony and other women would have thought about that conversation. How quickly we forget the struggle to gain the right to vote and to sit on a jury.

We have become such a throw-away society. If it is inconvenient to us, we simply throw it away. No one wants to do it anyway. For just one second, think about what our society would be like without a jury. Who decides the punishment for committing crimes? Who decides which person should to pay in a landlord/tenant dispute? Would we have a Judge Judy sitting around every day to make all the decisions for us? That is a great idea. Let’s give the responsibility of making all the important decisions in our lives to the king, only one person. That did not work so well a few hundred years ago, and, I dare say, it would not work well today.

So, my ending thought is this: When you get that summons to appear for jury duty, look at it, smile and say, “Thank you, Susan! Good job.”

3 comments:

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Susan Kilkelly said...

I completely agree. I was shocked to realize recently, at age 53, that women had only had the right to vote for 36 years when I was born.

DrGina said...

Thanks for the great post Katherine. Another reminder that the freedoms we take for granted came about from the suffering of those with the courage to fight for them. It makes me remember the lovely little poem by Dr. Natasha Josephowitz called "Titles." It goes like this:
My grandmother was a lady,
My mother was one of the girls.
I am a woman.
My daughter is a doctor.