This week in New York City, Donald Trump, arguably the most talked about man in America, took time out of campaigning to show up for jury duty. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz showed up as sitting senators. Governor Scott Walker even served on a personal injury jury. All are important, busy people, and all chose to fulfill a foundational, constitutional duty. What does this small act of citizenship reveal about their character as a potential president?
Jury duty is a test. The jury summons is an equal opportunity inconvenience. Whether you are a senator, a CEO, or something else, there is almost always a conflict in your schedule and a necessary gut check of priorities. How you react to this challenge reveals the importance you place on the justice system and the role of citizens in a democratic republic.
For Republican presidential candidates, this challenge should be an easy test to pass. If you believe in an "originalist" Constitution, you should believe in the jury. If you believe in local, anti-federal government power structures, you should believe in the jury. If you believe in civic virtue, you should believe in the jury. Jury service allows candidates to "walk the walk" for those who talk a good game about fidelity to the Constitution.
To their credit, Senators Rubio and Cruz flew back to their home states to serve. Governor Walker sat for several days, while serving as the chief executive of Wisconsin. Governor Rick Perry and George Pataki also served while in office.
Such commitment shows respect for constitutional structure. While largely misunderstood, jury service at its core is about constitutional power. Juries act as structural checks on the judiciary, and other branches of government. Jurors act as citizen representatives to ensure local control. The jury trial represents one of the few opportunities for "We the People" to claim a role in self-government. Politicians who forget this power structure forget the true source of power in American government: citizens.
More pointedly, jury service is a leveling force in American democracy. Mr. Trump was not summoned to jury duty because he was "The Donald." All of his accomplishments, celebrity, and net worth are irrelevant to his qualifications for service. His only qualification: citizenship (a subject, ironically, he has raised a bit of fuss about before). The simple, humbling lesson of jury duty is that all citizens are equal and are expected to participate equally.
True, Donald Trump missed jury duty several times before. Worse, he is not alone when it comes to the habit of avoiding jury duty. In New York City approximately 12 percent of jurors summoned each week appear to serve. This embarrassing statistic is a national problem with jury yields barely breaking 20 percent in many jurisdictions. Some of this low turnout involves missed summons, bad addresses, and the like. A spokesperson for Donald Trump claimed that Mr. Trump never received the prior summonses. But, many citizens simply ignore the summons because of a calculation that personal schedules and obligations are more important than jury duty. This sentiment, as understandable as it is damaging to the nation's character, should be resisted.
Yes, jury duty is difficult, inconvenient, and inefficient. But, so is democracy. And, the upsides of democratic power in a constitutional system, shall we say, "trump" the negatives. Some politicians, because of patriotism or good politics get this reality.
Skipping jury service reflects negatively on one's character - especially if you have the financial means and power to sacrifice a day or two for your community. Fortunately, many of the announced Republican candidates have led by example and served. As the presidential race heats up, all candidates will be judged on questions of policy and character. Those who embrace the difficult and unglamorous responsibilities of daily citizenship will have a greater claim to the type of character that can lead a nation. Small acts sometimes matter more than big ideas. And, hopefully, this leadership will inspire others to join them on jury duty.