There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.
I was in a courtroom (on break) this week when I read this quote in my novel, “Glass Houses” by Louise Penny. It was quoted by Chief Superintendent Gamache while he was on the witness stand. I felt well supported in that liminal space between fact and fiction.
Fifty of us who were called by Multnomah County Circuit Court gathered for the selection of fifteen jurors for a civil suit resulting from a motorcycle and delivery truck accident. The injured motorcyclist was suing for twenty-five million dollars.
For five hours, split by lunch, all fifty of us were grilled by both attorneys while most of us sat on very uncomfortable wooden pews.
We were instructed to keep an open mind, not forming any opinions until we had heard the facts. We were told that in a civil case (unlike a criminal case), all that needed to make a decision was that one side be deemed fifty-one percent true. If the delivery truck company was on the fifty-one percent side, there would be no money paid. If the motorcyclist was on the fifty-one percent side, the jury would decide the size of the judgment.
As a young girl, I had many conversations with my attorney grandfather about how our legal system worked. He always came down on the side of the law, the court system and the need for every attorney to fully defend their client (even if they were personally unconvinced of his/her innocence).
As a sixty-three-year-old, I sat in the courtroom and wrestled, again and again, of how I could answer the attorneys’ complex questions briefly and honestly.
In the end, I was released from the trial along with thirty-five others. But I continue to sit with the experience.
Trial by jury. I listened carefully to the history of our jury system from
the welcoming judge speaking to over a hundred citizens of Multnomah County in the jury waiting room, from the introduction video that followed his speech, and from the courtroom judge where I spent my day. I take my responsibility to show up as a potential juror as my part in the making of a fair and just legal system. Nevertheless, I also know that a jury of peers hasn’t, in the past nor in the present, ever guaranteed justice. Cultural prejudice, hatred and bias bleeds through juries. Access to good lawyers can easily sway a jury. Decisions about the charge and whether it comes to trial can be tainted by bias. I wish this complexity could have been acknowledged, even while holding onto the strengths of a jury system.
I know there are times when injustice or negligence occurs and a lawsuit is a necessary (though horrible) solution. When two of the fifty balked at the size of the judgment as egregious, the judge stepped in to ask what she/he had pre-decided was a fair amount and why they had made a decision before hearing the facts in the case (i.e. not keeping an open mind until hearing all of the evidence). Most thought there should be no cap on the size of a lawsuit, believing that the jury was the best place for that decision to be made.
One potential juror remarked that an individual deserved restitution if they were unjustly hurt. Funny to hear that in a country that is happy to consider twenty-five million to an injured individual but won’t even have the conversation about restitution for unimaginable hurt perpetrated by our nation on whole populations of people.
Another juror remarked that money for non-economic damages (pain and suffering as a result of the injury) made sense because “Money is the only way we can make things right.”
“Could you keep an open mind about the amount of the judgment if the person sued was as wealthy as Bill Gates or a homeless person?”
“Do you have any difficulty with the fact that in a civil trial fifty0one percent is all that is required for one side to win?” Almost everyone said it was hard to have that much money hanging on such a small percentage, but that they could make such a judgement if the evidence was there. I admitted that I am never comfortable with “winning” anything by two percent.
The attorney for the company that owned the delivery truck noted that there is much controversy in our country today about immigrants, and noted that the defendants are immigrants (from Mexico or Central America I suspect). “Would that fact affect your ability to be open in this case?” she asked. It was interesting to me that the motorcyclist was also an immigrant—a white man from Belgium. That fact was only mentioned when the two attorneys named all of the witnesses for the trial (to see if any of us jurors knew any of them), noting that since his family would likely be unknown as they were from Belgium. No one flagged the question of prejudice toward a white European immigrant.
I take seriously my commitment to the law and our jury system. I want to serve as one of a fair and impartial jury. And yet I can’t set aside my deeper commitment to my values and heart. In this struggle, I feel close to my dad. We are both rule and law followers. Both of us have served on juries and took that responsibility very seriously. Dad may not have agreed with most of my opinions about the issues raised in this trial, but he was also a man who was deeply committed to following his conscience. I know my grandfather would have disagreed with my opinions, but he would have appreciated my wrestling with the issues. I felt Gandhi, Gamache, my biological family and my global family by my side as I walked into and out of the court room this week.