Jury duty is a civic responsibility many people would like to shirk. But we show up anyway, waiting to see the court’s judgment on whether we will be suitable jurors.
U.S. District Court Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer understands the responsibilities of jurors well. She has served on a jury, even after becoming a federal judge.
“It’s often completely inconvenient. It’s a big distraction. It’s full of delays and sometimes downright boring. But because it is one of the biggest responsibilities of citizenship, we step up and do our part,” she said at last Wednesday’s Shared Ethics Advisory Commission summit.
Without the court system, “individuals have no way of seeking relief. Business can’t go on unless businessmen and women believe a contract means something. Our cities and towns are not safe unless the justice system is there to find the truth and deliver just punishment,” Pallmeyer said.
“The relationship between government and politics is a very challenging one.”
Yet it’s an issue facing voters in this year’s elections — and in other years as well.
Pallmeyer made the point that court staff members have to go through periodic ethics training, just as the participants in last week’s summit did.
The selling points of ethics training should be obvious. But to those who don’t see it, Pallmeyer — who presided over former Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s public corruption trial — put it in no uncertain terms.
Pallmeyer was speaking about bureaucrats when she said, “Someone will pick up the files on your desk and move forward. You are not indispensable.” But she could just as easily have singled out elected officials.
Together, bureaucrats, elected officials and other government employees make up the government.
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How well they perform their jobs shapes public attitudes toward the government.
If you look at Gallup Inc. data for the various branches of the federal government, you’ll see low approval rates fueling an anti-incumbent mood.
Some of that is fueled by evidence of ineptitude.
“Think about the loss of public confidence that results when all of us find out the people of Flint, Michigan, have been drinking unsafe water for more than a year,” Pallmeyer said. “And the outrage grows when people learn that at least some public officials may have been aware of what was going on and not taken appropriate action.”
But a sense that government officials or employees are acting unethically is unhealthy for society.
“How serious is public integrity? We all know the answer to that question,” Pallmeyer said. “When members of the public don’t believe their public officials are on the up-and-up, they lose all respect for the rule of law in general. They become cynical and suspicious. They decide it isn’t worth playing by the rules because nobody else does.”
The Shared Ethics Advisory Commission membership grew rapidly last year. The next growth opportunity is for school districts. That will mean an entirely new ethics training curriculum because education poses a different set of ethical challenges than the ones other local government workers deal with.
But it’s worth the extra work. Adding to the commission’s membership is important.
Whether it’s at a public corruption trial or at the ballot box, citizens are acting as a jury for their government. If elected officials want a favorable verdict, they’ve got work to do.