By: H.A. Abella
Jury duty. While many see it as something to avoid, for naturalized citizens like me, jury duty represents an opportunity to fulfill our aspirations for integration and civic participation.
For immigrants to the U.S., citizenship is the realization of a dream; it’s the imaginary rubber-stamp that reads “you made it.” Our naturalization ceremonies provide an unanticipated eye opener, when, with our right hands raised, we immigrants realize that our rights as citizens do not come free. We learn we are expected to uphold the constitution, bear arms in case of war, and accept many other responsibilities in service to our new country. And, for the most part, we are happy to oblige (perhaps, in part, because we think that’s the way all U.S. citizens feel about their nation deep down).
For a long time, I believed that the link binding U.S. citizens together was the will to share rights and responsibilities evenly. But one thing became clear to me not long after swearing allegiance: many native U.S. citizens truly despise jury duty.
The feeling isn’t gratuitous. A Gallup poll once found that more than 50% of Americans have lost interest in serving on juries since the O.J. Simpson trial. While reasons for this lack of enthusiasm vary, one theory is that the composition of jury panels is a far cry from the true make-up of U.S. society. Not exactly the jury of one’s peers that the founding fathers envisioned.
Recently, the day came when I got my first summons for jury duty. Young and old people of every gender, ethnicity and religion gathered in a huge jury lounge. And I could tell that many of them were naturalized immigrants like me: mobile phone conversations all around carried the distinct hum of foreign-accented English and diverse languages. It was heartwarming to hear and see such diversity. That was not the feeling I had been told to expect from my experience at jury duty. It also put in perspective my work at CLINIC, promoting and supporting programs that help immigrants become valuable members of our society.
Obviously, I don’t know whether that diversity was reflected in the jury ultimately selected. However, the eagerness and will to serve one’s country I witnessed that day gave me hope that one day, not too far away, our nation will be so diverse that it might be nearly impossible for it not to show up in a jury box.
There, foreign-born and native citizens (whether happy about being selected or not) will continue to sustain the cornerstone of our justice system —trial by jury of one’s peers— and ensure that others get a fair day in court.