Last month, Circuit Judge Todd Bjerke fined eight people for failing to respond to a jury summons. It is the first time such a fine has been imposed in La Crosse County.

Richard Kyte

Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a member of the Tribune’s editorial board.

Is this a new trend? Are more people shirking jury duty than in the past, or is it an ongoing problem that courts are just starting to address?

I reached out to Dale Pasell, a retired judge from La Crosse County, who confessed surprise at the story. He explained, “When I have been involved as an attendee or presenter at national seminars the topic often came up. People would ask, ‘What do you do when jurors fail to appear?’ I could honestly reply that it was not an issue in my courtroom. I also don’t believe it was a huge issue in this state. For whatever reason people here show up when they are summoned, at least until lately.”

Recently retired Crawford County Judge Jim Czajkowski had a similar experience during his years on the bench. “Crawford County has historically had very few no-shows for jury duty,” he said. “I cannot recall a single incident when an absent juror did not appear when a telephone call was made to remind a juror to appear.”

It is reassuring to hear that reporting for jury duty is not a significant problem in our part of the country. Yet, if there is national decline in jury participation rates, then eventually, we are going to see the same decline here in southwest Wisconsin.

Each year, more than 30 million adults in the United States (less than 10 percent of the population) receive a jury summons and about 3 million of those do not bother to show up for jury selection. Of those who do show up, most are dismissed due to financial or medical hardship or because they are not needed. Only about 1.5 million end up serving on a jury.

Since the typical trial lasts three to four days, we can estimate that jury duty costs Americans about six million workdays each year. That is not even close to the amount of work lost from sickness and injury. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu alone costs 111 million workdays each year.

For most people, jury duty does not present a significant hardship. It is, rather, an inconvenience, but that is just what life is: a continual string of one inconvenience after another. Getting sick is inconvenient; arranging childcare is inconvenient; commuting to work is inconvenient; cleaning the house is inconvenient; going to the in-laws for Thanksgiving is inconvenient.

We put up with most inconveniences because we do not want to suffer the consequences of avoiding them. But when we have the option of avoiding them without cost, it is only natural to want to do so.

Trial by jury is a shared good in our society, and, as such, it is subject to what economists call the “free rider” problem. Many people have to participate in the system in order for it to function, but some people may find ways to opt out. They share in the benefit, but they do not share in the cost.

There are two ways of addressing the free rider problem: sanctions, such as fines or jail time (which are relatively ineffective and costly), and ethics. Addressing the problem with ethics involves persuading people to participate willingly. Such persuasion may take place formally through the education system or informally through the daily conversations people have with one another.

When it comes to articulating the connection between jury duty and citizenship, both formal and informal means of persuasion seem to be breaking down.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted last summer revealed that 78 percent of Americans older than 65 said that serving on a jury “is part of what it means to be a good citizen.” But only 50 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 agreed with that statement.

That is a worrisome statistic; it portends trouble down the road, especially if it is an indicator not just of attitudes toward jury duty in particular but also toward the broader notion of civic responsibility.

It raises the question: How are we talking to one another about the responsibilities of citizenship?

During the past few decades, conservatives have increasingly emphasized personal responsibility as opposed to social responsibility, regarding government as an obstacle to individual freedom rather than a means to advance the common good. At the same time, liberals have emphasized the rights of the marginalized as opposed to the responsibilities of all, investing more energy in protesting established institutions than reforming them.

Neither end of the political spectrum has championed citizenship, which requires the often tedious work of maintaining our democracy through daily efforts of shared sacrifice.

Here in southwest Wisconsin, we tend to have a robust sense of civic responsibility, more robust than in many other places of the country. But we cannot take it for granted. If we do not work hard to shape our community the way we want it, there are plenty of others who are willing to shape it for us. Indeed, they are already hard at work.

Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a member of the Tribune’s editorial board.

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