Bret Parker headshot

Moments of Civic Inspiration

There’s so much rancorous debate in our country about a variety of issues. Recently I’ve been wondering if we’ve lost the ability to listen to one other, learn from people with different perspectives, and reach consensus based on fact and principle regarding what’s best for the common good, rather than stubbornly adhere to our own views. And then I got called for grand jury duty, which reminded me of what is possible when we’re at our best.

The dynamic of grand jury duty is a bit different than regular jury duty, but I’ve served on the latter kind too (a medical malpractice case). The common thread is that groups of New Yorkers, all of them with different backgrounds and viewpoints, are gathered for a spirited conversation and work together to reach an important decision based on evidence, testimony, and law.

When I received my summons, like most people I knew I would find it very difficult to take time away from work. I expected my fellow jurors to feel the same way. On the one hand, as a lawyer, I was happy to do my duty, and it’s the only civic requirement we have. On the other hand, none of us had chosen to be there, and some would be feeling the sting of reduced wages. (The City Bar continues to pay its employees their full wages during their jury service, and issued a report through the Criminal Justice Operations Committee, Criminal Courts Committee, and Labor & Employment Committee, calling for legislation requiring this practice from all employers in New York with more than 25 employees.)

After we gathered in the main room at 100 Centre Street, those of us who were picked to serve (it’s just a random selection with no voir dire in grand jury duty) walked to the assigned room at 80 Centre Street. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the room was named to honor the memory of my friend and active City Bar member Peter Kougasian, a lawyer of great kindness and great commitment to justice. This proved a very good omen, because almost immediately I was struck by the engagement, commitment, and good spirit of my fellow jurors. Under the best of circumstances, it can be difficult to devote your full attention to long presentations of complex legal material. More difficult, still, to engage in a calm, compassionate discussion of those facts with peers. They all have their own interpretation of what you have heard, but still must all find their way to agreement with one another.

Peter M. Kougasian Training Center Plaque
The Peter M. Kougasian Training Center – named in memory of City Bar member Peter M. Kougasian – is in the Manhattan District Attorney’s offices at 80 Centre Street.
When you think about it, the task seems impossible. So much of the discourse happening today is filled with acrimony, spite, and bad feeling. Many individuals take an “us vs. them” mentality and refuse to consider what others have to say. Sometimes it feels like if we’re not talking about sports or the weather, we’re having an argument!

But in both of my jury duty experiences (and I believe most people’s) there is a surprisingly collegial atmosphere in the jury room. Jurors are often receptive to one another’s ideas in deliberation, and invested in finding common ground for agreement. Camaraderie often grows in the room, in my case to the point that jurors swapped recommendations for lunch together and some jurors exchanged phone numbers to stay in touch after the jury was disbanded.

At first I wondered why it seemed so easy for people to be considerate of one another’s point of view, when surely there is more at stake in a jury room than on Twitter! Then I realized that everyone in that room was there because of a sense of civic duty (and of course a compulsory summons). The respect that they felt for this institution of government, and the respect that they felt for their place in that institution, creates a presumption of mutual respect between people. The responsibility that we all bear as jurors is more important than any of our individual needs to be right. I was so proud to be part of that group, and so proud to feel a sense of civic duty that was bigger than any one of us.

That feeling is alive in the pages of this newsletter. In our committee rooms and Zoom meetings, just as in that jury room, individuals from all different backgrounds do their civic duty by addressing issues of the utmost importance to the public and the legal community. Many are the disagreements within committees, or between committees, on any question. But our virtual and physical committee spaces are places of mutual respect and collaboration because our members share a commitment to a higher ideal: a legal profession that acts as a steward of justice, good government, and good citizenship. That commitment is present on every page of the policy work that we publish. I hope you find the same inspiration here that I do.