This post by RCA President Colin Mills was originally published in Reston Patch.
Last week, I had my faith in America enewed in an unusual way: I was called for jury duty. The call happens to most of us at some point, but this was the first time for me. When I got the summons, I was kind of annoyed. My scheduled day happened to fall on the first day of the RCA election. Not only that, but I’m in the middle of a very busy cycle of life. There are meetings and community issues galore requiring my attention; I’m racing to meet some important deadlines at work; and my fiancée and I are busy planning our wedding. Setting aside a day (or more) to go sit on a jury felt like one more imposition that I didn’t need.
In the end, though, I decided to take my lumps and serve. And I’m glad I did, because it reminded me how a little bit of effort from all of us helps our community function.
The jury I wound up on seemed like a group you might pick at random off the street: men and women, older and younger, from a variety of socioeconomic classes. And everyone took their duties seriously; we listened carefully to the testimony, took notes, and then went back into the jury room and deliberated.
Even though it was a fairly simple case with only a few witnesses, we discussed it in detail, asking questions of each other and sharing our thoughts on the testimony. We reached a verdict fairly quickly, but we made sure we’d considered every avenue and gave everyone a chance to speak. And I walked away feeling that we’d discharged out duty well and did the right thing.
The jury trial is one of the greatest features of the American justice system. We take it for granted, but when you hear stories of corrupt judges or detentions without trial in other countries, you realize how brilliant it really is: a group of people, picked at random from among your fellow citizens, whose only job is to listen to the evidence presented and reach a fair and unbiased verdict. Is it perfect? No, but it’s better than any other system that has been devised.
The flip side is that every so often we need to give up a day or two to serve on these juries. It’s an inconvenience, but it’s a small price to pay to ensure that should we ever find ourselves on trial, it will be a fair one.
Jury duty encapsulates the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of American government. Our system is built on magnificent institutions that function because we collectively agree to believe in them and help them work. Our criminal justice system works because we are willing to serve on juries once in a while, and because we accept that the trials are fair. Similarly, our electoral system works because we’re willing to cast votes from time to time, and because we accept that the outcome of the elections represents the will of the people.
How is it also a weakness? Because the social compact that makes it work is very powerful, but it’s also fragile. If people decide that serving on juries is pointless because the justice system is corrupt, or that voting doesn’t matter because the system is stacked against the little guy, it can all fall apart. As we’re seeing in Egypt and Venezuela right now, elections don’t work if people don’t agree to abide by the results.
A loss of faith in the system would be catastrophic to the American system of government. So would mass apathy. If we all decided to get out of jury duty because we have better things to do, our criminal justice system would stop working. And if everyone decided not to vote because we don’t care who’s in charge or because “one vote doesn’t matter,” our democracy would cease to be.
The same thing is true here in Reston. We have a number of longstanding civic institutions here, from RCA to Reston Association to Reston Interfaith and more. I’ve talked before about how active citizen involvement has made Reston much more than just another suburb. This has worked because we’ve always had people willing to volunteer to serve Reston in some way, whether by serving food to the homeless at the Embry Rucker shelter or by sitting on an RA advisory committee or by serving on the RCA Board.
Our major civic groups like RCA, RA, and RCC all do their best to represent the will of Reston’s citizens, and the best way to determine that is through elections. As it happens, you have the chance to vote in RCA’s elections right now. Let us know how you think we’re doing by voting for the candidates who best represent your vision of how RCA should be involved in Reston. (And if you’re not happy with the candidates, you can always write in someone you’d rather vote for – maybe even yourself!)
Both Reston and America need active and engaged citizens in order to work right. And I’m resolved to do my part to help serve both my community and my country. That’s why I vote whenever I have the chance, even though my one vote may never swing an election. That’s why I will always serve my jury duty without complaint when my number comes up, even if losing a day is inconvenient. And that’s why I have served as RCA President for the last two years, and I am running to serve another.
This Fourth of July, express your patriotism through more than just fireworks and grilled burgers. Resolve to be a more active citizen. Volunteer to help the community in a way that suits your interests and circumstances. Go ahead and report for jury duty instead of trying to wiggle out of it. And if you haven’t cast a vote in the RCA election yet, click here to do it. Happy Independence Day!