I’m one of those odd people who has been waiting for my turn at jury duty ever since I knew that jury duty was a thing. I like knowing the laws, understanding the reasons for them, and analyzing the details and wording that define them.

Volunteerism and civic engagement are woven into my sense of purpose, and I like the idea that each of us has a role to play in creating a fair and peaceful society. Yes, go ahead and roll your eyes. I’m almost doing so myself.

It all sounds a little ridiculous — or at least ironic — when you realize that jury duty itself carries with it a fair amount of inequity and injustice. It is non-voluntary work that doesn’t even pay the state’s minimum wage and it creates an economic hardship that impacts people very differently depending on their financial resources.

When I got my letter in the mail notifying me that my name had been drawn as a potential juror, I was diligent in responding and reported to the Knox County Superior Court in Rockland as directed. I am one of the lucky ones with a flexible schedule.

It’s an interesting experience filing into the courthouse for jury duty and looking for a seat among people from every walk of life who have been told to momentarily drop whatever they are doing. It feels a little like landing on a different planet for those of us who have spent very little time in the Knox County Courthouse. We didn’t go immediately to the courtroom but were funneled first into a waiting area of sorts which filled up as you would expect it to — each person choosing a seat as far away from the already occupied seats as possible.

When I walked in — somewhere in the middle of the pack — people were dispersed evenly in the rows with almost exactly three empty seats between them. I reluctantly broke the pattern and nestled in with only one seat separating me from my neighbor. I watched as each subsequent person entered, scanning the rows as I had for the least awkward seat available.

There’s something fascinating about being in a room full of people called up for jury duty, especially in the phase before anyone has been weeded out through questionnaires designed to identify relevant bias. The names are randomly selected from a list of Maine driver’s licenses and state identification cards — the idea being to get a random and representative cross section of the county where the trial is to take place.

Perhaps nowhere else might you be surrounded by such a deliberately balanced cross section of the place where we live, in this case Knox County. There were people who had arrived by ferry, by bicycle, by minivan, pickup truck, and everything in between. Aside from physical differences, there was also a notable difference in demeanor between people.

Even before we grew comfortable enough to strike up conversations with the strangers around us, it was easy to see stress on the faces of some as they checked the time, sighed, texted, or even buried their head in their hands.

Some were maybe the type that always feel inconvenienced and aggrieved, complaining about time wasted even if they had nowhere in particular to go. But there were others for whom this was most certainly a hardship, whether due to childcare concerns, lost income, or other unmet obligations.

I remembered the letter we had received and the daily pay rate, set by the Legislature, of $15 per day plus 44 cents a mile.

Whoever wrote the text of the letter was wise enough to know what was obvious even to my children: that 15 dollars was almost nothing and wouldn’t be enough to make up for anyone’s missed day of work or the cost of childcare. It was clear they wanted us to know that the pay rate was set by the people we elect to represent us, not by the judiciary.

The letter also contained a few of the typical phrases that you might expect. It reminded us that jury service was both a duty and a privilege; the price we pay in the form of civic participation in order to live in a free yet orderly society such as ours. When we eventually were led into the courtroom, Justice Hjelm reiterated these principles eloquently, with the conviction of an idealistic college student and the calm and steady voice of a veteran official.

I even felt compelled to start scribbling down notes as he gave an overview of why it matters that people serve on juries at all. He spoke about the right that an accused person has to a trial where the outcome is determined by an impartial group of fellow citizens rather than a single government bureaucrat, like himself. He likened the process to “democracy in its purest form” a phrase often used to describe Camden’s form of government where elected officials have extremely limited power.

I pondered the similarities and differences between serving on a jury and voting on municipal ordinances and cringed a little. I’m certainly glad we don’t leave verdicts to be decided at the ballot box by whomever happens to show up to vote at the polls in November. I understood what he meant though and hoped that the jury selection process used in the justice system produced better results than our system of direct democracy sometimes does.

Perhaps things would be better if voting were mandatory — as jury duty is. Or maybe if we could force a small group of randomly selected people to become informed about candidates and ballot questions and then let them decide for the rest of us. Instead of electing people, we could draft them.

It is almost certain that we would not be better off in the judicial system by relying only on volunteers who came forward to sign themselves up for jury service, as we do with voting. If the system were to rely exclusively on people who stepped up and volunteered for the task, we’d hardly end up with a representative sample and the pool of jurors.

A voluntary system would inevitably be skewed toward people who have flexible schedules and the financial security necessary to take time away from work. For this reason, there are very few excuses that will get you out of jury duty other than a verifiable and relevant disability or bias.

As a matter of chance, I wasn’t picked to serve on a jury, but I did spend quite a bit of time on multiple days sitting in the courthouse with people who had done it before. I listened to many people who were understandably very eager to get back to work or other obligations and to a few who had served on juries where the main objective of the group seemed to be finishing quickly.

Why wouldn’t we consider it important to pay people at least enough to offset their expenses for the day? Why would we want cases of great importance decided by a group of people who are forced to suffer financial hardship the longer it takes them to decide? From what I witnessed, there wasn’t even coffee or snacks available to people. I did eventually find a water fountain and a vending machine.

Justice Jeffrey Hjelm explained the circumstances that kept us waiting in a way that was as engaging, informative, and sincere as I could imagine possible under the circumstances. I had missed his name at the start but made a point of asking one of the clerks on my way out. I learned he was a recently retired judge who had served for years on Maine’s Supreme Court. I’m not certain of the circumstances that brought him out of retirement, but I felt grateful to have had a chance to listen to him even briefly.

He did his job in an exemplary way that left me feeling a little better about the judicial system than I have in the past. The judicial system can only be held to a high standard if the legislative side of things (and that means us) is willing to allocate the resources needed to treat people fairly.

As a society, we would be very foolish to expect fairness from juries that are being treated unfairly themselves. Maine employers are required to allow their employees to perform jury service and to excuse them from work, but they are not required to pay them. This is as it should be, but the Legislature needs to allocate funds to pay jurors at least the rate paid to jurors in federal courts, which is $50 a day.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Vice-Chair of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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