Over the last two weeks I had been handing off work assignments to prepare myself and my work colleagues for my five week absence to serve D.C. Grand Jury duty. I showed up at the courthouse on-time and was filed into the room where they checked in all Grand Jurors. Initially, they asked for anyone with a letter stating why they could not serve to present the letter to the clerk, then they asked for other reasons why people could not serving starting with the other side of the room from me.
As I sat and waited for them to get to my side of the room I wondered whether I’d go up and state my case as to why I don’t think I should serve nor should anyone in the District. Over the last 6 years I’ve been called for jury duty both for D.C. Superior Court and Federal Court and each time in the voir dire phase I’ve had the chance to speak to a judge directly to state my case that while I had nothing against the judges I did not respect their authority. Both Federal & D.C. Superior Court justices are appointed by the President and then confirmed by the Senate where we in the District have no representation. I do not think I should have to serve before a judge confirmed by a body where I/we have no representation. Our government is based on checks and balances and we are denied a full and meaningful check over the District’s judicial system.
Two years ago when I stated my case to a judge in D.C. Superior Court he looked at me and said “so you’re making an argument about your disenfranchisement.” I responded that was exactly the case and then asked “but can you still ably serve on a jury?” “I can because I also fundamentally believe in the concept of a trial in front of a jury of your peers.” The judge winked at me, smiled, and I served on that jury but I was able to voice my objections to the system while still respecting the concept of trial by jury.
So as I sat waiting in the Grand Jury room I wondered if I’d state my case to the clerk doing the roll because my beef was not with her rather it was with the judges and U.S. Attorney’s Office all of whom oversee the District’s judicial system without any oversight by the people of the District. When the roll call got to my side of the room I figured I might as well take the opportunity to express my discontent with the system we are forced to live under.
I walked up the bench and said I don’t believe it’s right or just that I and the people of D.C. have federal prosecutors prosecuting local cases. We should have our local prosecutors doing that before judges appointed and approved by elected officials in the District of Columbia not the U.S. Senate where we have no representation. As I made my pitch the clerk had her head down and just said “uh-huh, uh-huh, ok, got it. Burch, right? Before I left the bench I said “I have no logistical reasons as to why I do not think I should serve just philosophical objections to the system we live under.” And then I went back to my seat.
After another 30 minutes of talking to other Grand Jurors, dismissing several of them, and then taking a 15 minute break we were called back into the courtroom. I was immediately called to the bench and was given a dismissal paper and told to go back to the petit jury office to check-in. I was stunned. I only raised philosophical and political objections and twice before those objections alone did not relieve me from jury duty but for some reason today that was different.
I do not object to jury duty as I believe it is a cornerstone to our judicial system that though imperfect makes our system better than most around the world. I do, however, object to the system we live under here in the District. We don’t control or pay for our courts, prisons, and prosecutorial services. Yes, we should serve on juries but we also need to speak up and speak out against an unjust system those juries must operate within.
I can’t figure out why they let me out of Grand Jury Duty today. Was it my principled stand? I don’t know for sure but I gave them no other reason to let me go.
We in the District need to figure out how to take back control of our court and prison system and that starts with developing a plan to transition it over to the District (costs & logistics) but along the way we need to keep speaking out against a system that is contrary to our democratic principles.
We need to plan, work, speak out, and resist. Every day we can and should do something to push the statehood cause forward and if you get called for jury duty don’t forget to question authority.