By DEBORAH WONG
I’ve been a registered voter for 42 years. I’ve been called for jury duty more than once but have only twice undergone the process of jury selection. I was excused both times during voir dire.
By excused, I mean shown the door: invited to get up and go home. The judge told me I had fulfilled my obligation, thank you very much.
During jury selection, the only right answer is to say that you will uphold the law, as it stands, whichever law it is. Any other answer disqualifies you from participation in the process. The first time I was excused from jury service was many years ago in Philadelphia, and the question was whether I would be willing to put the defendant up for the death penalty. Today, in Riverside, the question was whether I would be able to determine whether the defendant had defied a law enforcement officer.
The hypothetical scenario was this: it’s against the law to feed the ducks, and a 75-year-old woman chose to feed them anyway. Did she break the law? And by the way, it wasn’t my response to the duck question that washed me out of the system – it was when the assistant DA asked whether any of us had been arrested, and I said yes, once, for civil disobedience in 1999, a block from this courtroom, on the steps of the Riverside Police Department’s Orange Street Station as part of a planned action after Tyisha Miller was killed by four police officers. Juror #2, you’re excused.
I am an educator, a scholar, and a critical thinker. To serve on a jury, you must accept the terms of the system. It’s not the place for shades of gray or questions about the system itself. It is a place where the system’s terms are enacted and upheld. To participate in the system, you must agree to abide by its terms. You must give yourself over to it.
Given that, I wonder how scholars and educators in the arts, humanities, and social sciences ever get chosen to sit on juries. After all, those who are chosen must accept the terms of the judicial system, or at least say they do. The courtroom is not the place for ambiguities or moral quandaries. It is where the system is applied. It is where the juror’s job is to ascertain whether the rules were broken, and not whether the rules are just, moral, ethical, or righteous.
Today, out the 18 potential jurors among whom I was seated for the first round of voir dire, three said they were biased toward or against law enforcement because they had experienced domestic violence and had called the police. Two were white women and the third was a Chinese American man who volunteered that he had seen his sister misunderstood and disbelieved after she called police officers.
Two others in our group of 18 were Asian American men – Filipino and Indian – and the prosecuting attorney acted like he couldn’t understand them because of their accents, asking them repeatedly whether they would have problems understanding testimony in English.
The thing is, I’m a huge fan of democracy. I like to think about it, I like to talk about it, and I enjoy its imperfections and messiness. I want to serve on a jury. I don’t resent being summoned: I view it as an honor. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.
When called upon every few years, I routinely have to ask to be rescheduled for winter, spring, or summer break, when I’m not teaching. While I’m not thrilled to have to use my time off in order to serve, I’m ready and eager to do it: I’m awed by the opportunity to participate – to step into the very heart of our legal system and to look after the interests of my fellow citizens, my peers.
I couldn’t have served a hundred years ago because I’m a woman. The Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote but not necessarily to serve on juries. By 1942, only 28 states allowed women to serve on juries. All 50 states weren’t on board until 1973, when I was in high school, a year after the Equal Rights Amendment failed.
Don’t even get me started on the history of Asian Americans, citizenship, and the U.S. legal system – let it suffice to say that Asian Americans have only become part of the jury pool in the last generation or so. To summarize, as an Asian American woman, I don’t take lightly my right to serve on a jury.
In the courtroom, jurors are asked to deny the messiness of democracy. As a woman, an Asian American, and a critical thinker, how can I possibly be expected to accept the legal system as something beyond discussion, as a set of principles that must be applied but not questioned? The very things that make me so eager to serve are exactly what lead to me being disinvited.
But I’m available, and I look forward to the next time the summons appears in my mailbox.
The author is a professor at the University of California, Riverside. The Rafu Shimpo’s management and staff continually strive to maintain high editorial standards for professionalism as well as accurate and balanced news coverage. The inclusion of a particular piece, including columns and op-ed submissions by contributing writers in print and/or digitally, does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the owners, management, individual staff members, and editors. The Rafu Shimpo welcomes responses to any article published in print or digitally. Responses may be sent to author directly or emailed to [email protected]