Jury Duty

I don’t expect to post very frequently, but something came up and I have to rant. I’m not sure this rant is really Angry Bear material, but since AB made the mistake of letting me in, well, who am I not to abuse his hospitality?

Yesterday, I got a jury duty summons in the mail. (Ironically, this week my girlfriend is “doing her civic duty” though so far she was excused by phone for the first two days of the week.) Most people have a problem with jury duty – its inconvenient, and often one spends more time sitting around doing nothing than actually “serving.” I have another problem. I’m a consultant. I’ve been lucky enough to do a very wide range of work, from straight-up economics and forecasting for telecom companies, to more oddball stuff like looking at the failure rate of military satellites or risks associated with developing new software.

Regardless of the project, I am expected to either come in knowing a lot about the subject, or to pick it up very quickly. I’m expected to ask questions, often, a lot of questions, and to seek out whatever additional information and tools I need to do the job as well as I can subject to the client’s constraints (cost, time, etc.). Similarly, I assume that in general, I haven’t been selected at random by the client – instead, presumably the client believes that while there are, no doubt, people who can do that particular job as well or better at the same or lower cost, the cost in time and dollars of finding those people exceeds the marginal benefits. Additionally, if for some reason I don’t think I am the person for the job, I will pass on the job and at times even help the client find someone better.

Jury duty doesn’t work that way at all. The people making the decision, often an important decision, perhaps even one of life or death, or that affects the livelihood and well-being of many people, are the least informed people in the court-room. What they can and cannot know is determined by the attorneys for both sides, and the judge. The jury cannot ask questions, nor are they allowed to search out additional information or develop additional expertise.

One supposed goal of this process seems to be impartiality. But… if the judge has any bias at all, he will ensure that the only information the jury has at its disposal is biased. Therefore, the jury system gives up the likelihood of a knowledgeable jury making informed decisions, without even getting impartiality in exchange. It seems to me if the system is set up to achieve unbiased but ignorant outcomes, a lot of time, effort and energy can be saved by simply flipping a coin.