Jury duty legislation ill-conceived

  • By Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Editorial
  • Wednesday, March 11, 2015 7:07pm
  • Opinion

Almost no one relishes the prospect of jury duty.

Although the service is a vital part of our civic responsibility, most people aren’t fond of the prospect of having to spend time away from work or home in court. Everyone has their reasons — discomfort with deciding a fellow Alaskan’s guilt or innocence, distrust of the legal system, simple resentment at being taken away from other important priorities — but regardless, we all have to serve.

This week, a member of the Alaska Legislature introduced a bill that would change that, carving out an exemption from jury duty for teachers during the school year.

The bill is undoubtedly brought forward with good intentions, but the Legislature should reject it for the damage it would do to a bedrock institution of democracy.

Rep. Jim Colver, R-Palmer, introduced the bill. He says excusing schoolteachers from jury service during the school year will prevent disruptions to learning in the classroom.

These disruptions of the regular class schedule are a headache for teachers and schools. They are costly, as substitutes must be hired, and they often force departures from regular lesson plans that can impact students’ education. Teachers are numerous enough that members of the profession receive jury notices frequently. They are also important to our society and their presence is missed even if they are only out of the classroom for a few days.

Despite this, they shouldn’t get a blanket excusal from service, for several reasons.

One, as mentioned before, is that jury duty, along with voting and paying taxes, is a bedrock civic responsibility in which we all must participate. And though Alaskans might gripe about it (as many do with all three of those responsibilities), the truth is that jury duty reacquaints us with some of the fundamental principles of our society: innocence until guilt is proven, the right not to incriminate one’s self and the right to fair trials regardless of one’s finances. There is great societal value in having those values reinforced through first-hand experience.

The point of jury duty — or one of them, at least — is that it is a great equalizer. Regardless of whether one works a part-time job for minimum wage or runs a multi-million-dollar business, there is no special treatment applied based on social or economic status.

Everyone has to serve, and everyone’s vote counts the same in the jury room. Carving out exemptions to that responsibility is problematic, because it introduces the notion of special status.

How is the absence of a teacher from the classroom, for instance, more consequential than the absence of a university professor? For that matter, is a manager or business president to be given greater consideration because that person directs the activities of their employees?

Creating exceptions based on profession or status is a slippery slope, and each step down it reduces the size and quality of the jury pool.

Furthermore, provisions exist that provide for those who would be unduly inconvenienced by jury service. Permanent exemptions exist for those older than 70 who seek to be excused, as well as those who are mentally or physically disabled. Judicial officers and teachers in low-performing schools are also excused from service (for teachers, this exemption exists only during the school year). The rest of us — including teachers — may petition to have jury service deferred by as much as 10 months because of the hardship or difficulty it would cause. That deferral is sufficient to allow any teacher’s service to be put off until school is out, if desired. Further exemptions aren’t necessary.

While Rep. Colver undoubtedly has good intentions in sponsoring his bill, and preventing classroom disruptions should always be a high priority, exempting teachers from jury service during the school year sends the wrong message and does harm to the notion that all Alaskans must perform their service equally.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 6

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