As a judge in Denver District Court, Christina Habas has a unique view on the law. As important as judges and lawyers are to the judicial process, Habas believes jurors have the most vital role. And she hopes more of us will take the job more seriously.
When my father was in his 20s, he was called to be a juror in a homicide case. He had two jobs, and three children under eight at home. The jury was sequestered, locked up. My father was one of only two jurors voting to acquit at the start of deliberations, and after hours of deliberation, the defendant was ultimately acquitted. My father saved the newspaper clippings from that trial for the next 49 years, sharing that experience with us many times. He relished his experience.
Now I am a trial judge in the Denver District Court, and I believe in jury duty. More precisely, I believe in the duty of the jury. Every day, citizens of every state receive a summons ordering them to appear for jury duty. Each day, I swear I can actually hear their groans. Each day as potential jurors arrive in my courthouse, their unhappiness hangs thick in the air.
This attitude is perplexing to me. I teach visiting students that jurors hold the highest position of power in a courtroom. Jurors, not judges, determine whether the government has proven its charge against a defendant; jurors, not judges, determine whether a party seeking damages deserves an award. Yet every week, I see people strive by any means necessary to be excused from exercising this authority.
Still others appear for jury service, but do not perform a juror’s duty. These people declare that they will make a decision based upon the evidence and the law, yet once deliberations begin, they reject those promises in favor of advancing their own personal beliefs. Astonishingly, some of these same jurors loudly denounce “activist judges” because of decisions that those judges make upon their own personal beliefs.
The symptoms of chronic ambivalence in this country are numerous: in community service, voting, politics. Avoiding jury duty is an acute and severe symptom. It undermines the ability of the courts to ensure that only the guilty are convicted, and that only the deserving receive compensation from those who truly caused injury. It directly causes injustice.
Many who avoid jury duty do so with no firsthand knowledge of the nature of jury service, or listen to others who are equally misinformed. In Colorado, judges meet privately with jurors after trial to listen to their concerns and suggestions for the future. With the exception of one juror, all of my jurors have been unanimous in finding the experience to be both interesting and rewarding, just as my father had 49 years ago.
My father’s participation in that trial was critical, but so was the participation of every other juror. Juries constituted of diverse members of our community are essential to ensure that verdicts represent the considered judgment of that community. Any failure of a large number of citizens to fulfill their jury duty corrupts the ability of the judicial system to fulfill its purpose of delivering justice. Because I believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people, I believe in jury duty.
Judge Christina Habas serves in the Criminal Division of Denver District Court in Colorado. She previously worked in private practice focusing on employment law, civil rights issues, insurance cases and personal injury. Habas has taught at the University of Denver and is a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates.
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