Commentary: The barrier to breakthroughs

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How does an entire profession get past polarized deadlocks over good vs. bad, legal vs, illegal? About the only way to gain traction is with a bold new idea. On that note, here’s Exhibit A.

If you were challenged to identify one civic duty that is almost universally greeted with disappointment — if not dread — at the top of the list would be receiving a letter announcing that you’ve been selected for jury duty.

It’s like wining the negative lottery, and reading the first paragraph of such a letter prompts a twofold reaction: First, a Nancy Kerrigan-esque “Why me?” followed almost immediately by the formulation of a strategy designed to get out of having to serve.

Illness, travel requirements, family demands – people quickly compile a laundry list of reasons why they shouldn’t have to participate in what is arguably one of the most important components of our democracy.

However, the reality is that there are people who would love to have the opportunity to serve on a jury, me included. In all the decades I’ve been a registered voter, I’ve never once received a summons for jury duty, while I’ve watched literally dozens of friends, family and colleagues complain about hitting what they perceive to be an unlucky number.

But an out-of-the-box response to this seemingly intractable situation has suddenly emerged. In New Jersey, a state lawmaker wants to let those residents of the Garden State who actually want to serve on a jury be given that privilege.

Assemblyman Craig Coughlin, a Democrat representing Middlesex district in central part of the state, has introduced A2949, a bill that would create a new pool of volunteer jurors.

“If they are out of work, in college or retired and want to do their civic duty, this would require the county clerk to compile a separate list of people who want to volunteer,” Coughlin said last week.

No doubt, the actual experience of serving on a jury bears no resemblance to the televised scenes on cops show and legal dramas, where jurors get to make life-and-death decisions about the fate of serial killers, corporate criminals and high-profile public officials accused of heinous crimes.

In the real world, jurors have to sit through — with the emphasis on “sit” — endless hours of the jury selection process, interminable delays while attorneys jockey over various motions peripheral to the case and in the end, lengthy and extremely frustrating arguments over guilt and innocence that need to be hashed out during deliberations.

Beyond the smokescreen

Predictably, defense attorneys are arguing that allowing people to volunteer for jury duty — even if potential jurors couldn’t volunteer to sit on specific trials — would be unconstitutional and would undermine the concept of “a jury of one’s peers” by creating a special class of people who are more likely to be selected.

Alan Zegas, a New Jersey criminal defense attorney, told the Newark Star-Ledger that those on the volunteer list would be more likely to be selected, since their names would appear on the normal jury duty rolls, as well as on the ”special” volunteer list.

“Under the constitution, a jury of one’s peers has been interpreted to mean a jury that is randomly selected,” Zegas said. “Once procedures are tampered with that interfere with the element of randomness, there’s huge potential for manipulation of the justice system, as well as the danger of creating a public perception injurious to the administration of justice.”

Joseph Hayden, another New Jersey criminal defense attorney, was equally critical.

“Our constitution contemplates selecting a jury from a cross-section of the community, as opposed to a select few volunteers,” Hayden said. “I wonder what kind of person would volunteer to be on a jury? They might well have an agenda to convict.”

Aha. Therein lies the real reason defense attorneys don’t want volunteers on the jury: It’s got little to do with constitutional law and a lot more to do with ensuring that the “right” kind of jurors get seated. Younger, less knowledgeable, less inclined to presume guilt versus innocence for the defendant.

 And there is probably some truth to that analysis. Who’s most likely to volunteer for jury duty? Seniors, that’s who (not me — I mean other “old” people). And how are they likely to vote when it comes time to poll the jury members?

Guilty as charged.

And keep in mind that during typical pretrial voir dire, defense lawyers almost always ask potential jurors if they’ve ever volunteered for jury duty. If they say yes, 99 times out of a 100, they’re excused on the spot.

But all that is a huge generalization, and in point of fact, it would be easy to limit the service of volunteer jurors to only a minority on any jury. That would avoid any potential abuse of the right to a trial of one’s peers.

The point of all this is to suggest that when the goal is leveraging a change in entrenched behavioral conventions, whether political, legal or consumer-related, the first step is to develop a bold new idea that forces both sides to revisit their preconceptions.

In the case of animal agriculture, fighting endless battles over environmental impact, carbon footprints and animal welfare issues can sometimes seems as fruitless as citizens trying to concoct the “perfect” excuse to get out of jury duty.

So what’s the breakthrough idea for animal agriculture, the volunteers-as-jurors new approach that could reinvigorate the debate over meat and livestock production?

Stay tuned for several suggestions, right here all next week.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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