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But it is also a fundamental aspect of the citizen's share in government. "The jury, which is the most energetic means of making the people rule, is also the most effective means of teaching it to rule," said Alexis de Tocqueville. Thomas Jefferson described the jury system as "the only anchor ever yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."
Every year in the U.S. some 3 million citizens are asked to drop everything in the rest of their lives and present themselves in court as potential jurors. The experience that awaits them can be something of an ordeal, wasteful and exasperatingand sometimes, most irritating of all, deadly dull. Reforming judgesnot the least being Chief Justice Warren Burgerhave challenged many aspects of this centuries-old system, and numerous courts are pioneering new computerized techniques that will speed up the whole process. Others have started to use smaller juries, streamlined rules, less-than-unanimous verdicts. The grand-jury system, which has many similar shortcomings, is being increasingly bypassed in some areas. Despite its inconveniences and irritations, which prompt many people to try to avoid it, jury service nevertheless can be, and often is, the most rewarding civic duty that average citizens get a chance to perform, far more so than voting or paying taxes. It is our communal enactment of the democratic idea.
Jury trials are actually not as common as is generally believed. Of all the criminal jury trials in the world, some 80% occur in the U.S. Yet more than 90% of all cases in the U.S. never come before a jury. Most litigants plea bargain, settle out of court or opt for trial before only a judge. Still, some 300,000 cases a year do come before a jury.
The conditions that can make jury duty so frustrating vary from place to place. Citizens are on call for as long as a year in rural areas of Wisconsin and most of Montana; daily pay can range from $45 a day in Kewaunee County, Wis., to $5 in civil cases in San Francisco, where nothing at all is paid to those who wait. Tensions inside the jury room can be painful, particularly if the jurors are sequestered at night. But the most common complaints are boredom and a sense of futility. Many are called and few chosen. Even those who are chosen, and summoned to court at a brisk hour of the morning, endure considerable (and often unexplained) delays before the court machinery finally turns. Judges often do not explain the law's mysteries. And on at least two