This past month, I served on a jury at the county court house. The whole trial-by-jury process was remarkable, but if our machine tools operated anything like what I saw, our shops and factories would be in a mess.
Imagine a machine that runs very slowly and somewhat erratically. Some components are very elaborate and costly. Other essential components have to be borrowed from other machines and pressed into service on a temporary basis. Many parts of the system are redundant; some parts are designed to undo or reverse the operations performed by other components. Sometimes this machine comes to an abrupt and unexpected stop, then lurches back into operation. Other times, it starts all over again, reprocessing the same raw material.
The most important parts of this machine are a group of pieces assembled largely at random. These pieces may or may not match very well. Yet the end product of this machine is what these pieces are able to process after the rest of the system has performed its various operations. Despite the elaborate logic in the controls, the results vary widely, with extremely low repeatability.
As a juror, I was one of the randomly assembled pieces whose function it was to render a fair and impartial verdict. Judging from the few trials I was a part of, this machine managed to produce at best only the roughest approximations of justice, using what misshapen and distorted fragments of truth were available from the evidence. Yet I am not at all disappointed with this performance.
The courtroom was never meant to be a machine-like process, working with measured inputs and producing mechanically regular results. Justice, like perfect quality in a workpiece, is ultimately an unattainable ideal, though the quest for it is unending. In court, as in the factory, an earnest embrace of that quest is all that we must demand of ourselves.
What impressed me most, however, is that in our American system, the quest for justice is entrusted to, even thrust upon, those who have the most at stake in its pursuit, the ordinary citizen. Those of us on the jury decided whether the accused was guilty or not guilty. The verdicts were ours and ours alone. Common men and women, not the government, settled each case. Neither king nor president, dictator nor general, riotous mob nor lone terrorist, could influence us. Although this trial-by-jury machine may seem cumbersome and imprecise, it is in fact a very effective guarantee of our most precious civil liberties.