Voir Dire*
May 5, 2023
By Kirstie Henry

What do you do when you get a jury summons? Do you groan audibly and immediately think of ways to get out of it?

Since I work for a judge, it is unlikely I will ever serve on a jury again, but I still have to appear when I get a summons. That’s why I’ll be in state court this week. But do not feel sorry for me! For those of you who think jury duty is a drag, I’d love to meet you for a cup of coffee, over which I will try to convince you that it is the very opposite. Yes, jury service is mandatory and no one likes being forced to do anything. Yes, it can be a financial hardship and it can cause all kinds of problems when we have to miss work or arrange for child care. But the right to a trial by jury is also one of the greatest privileges afforded by our Constitution. When you show up for jury duty, you show up for America, and you should do that with great pride.

This week, I was fortunate to participate in a naturalization service, in which over 50 people became citizens of the United States. I have a feeling when they get their first jury summons, they will be excited about it. Some of them will wonder if their language skills are strong enough. Other might have medical conditions that prevent them from serving. But all of them will know how precious it is to have the opportunity. 

Before I worked for the judiciary, I did serve as a juror for a few trials. In fact, every time I have been summoned for jury duty, I have ended up on the jury, and I loved those experiences. Back then, I thought of it as a badge of honor. I likened myself to a superstar athlete getting picked in the first round NFL draft; they must really like me since I keep getting picked! Over the past several years working in federal court, I have come to understand that isn’t quite how it works.

The process called “jury selection” is somewhat misleading. A jury is not really selected, as much as it is arrived at, through a process of elimination. The court does not gather a group of individuals in a room and then let the lawyers take turns picking the ones they like the best. Rather, the court gathers a group of individuals in a room and then lets the lawyers decide who they want to excuse. Those who are left become the jury.

Jury selection is quite compelling to observe though, as it becomes clear that each side wants to get rid of very different people. For example, in a criminal trial, the prosecutor might wish to keep the person whose father, brother, uncle, and cousin are all police officers. That person will very likely have a positive attitude toward law enforcement and find officers to be credible witnesses. The lawyer for the defendant, however, may want to get rid of that same person for the same reasons. But each is permitted to strike only a certain number of individuals, so they have to choose carefully and not waste their strikes on those who are only marginally problematic.

In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we learn that Kohanim with physical disabilities were barred from service in the Holy Temple. It is shocking to read the extensive list of imperfections which would deem a Kohen unfit for this type of service. Admittedly, I felt outraged. This is so contrary to the Belonging principles that we uphold in Jewish Buffalo, not to mention the Jewish tradition which teaches B’tzelem Elohim, the belief that everyone was created with the spark of the divine. Of course, we can discuss the fact that G-d is everywhere and not just in the Temple and that service elsewhere would have been equally meritorious, but there did seem to be some elevated stature with respect to Temple service.

The only way I can make sense of this is to compare it to jury selection. As descendants of Aaron the High Priest, the Kohanim were chosen by G-d to perform certain sacred work. Sometimes that sacred work included service in the Temple. Similar to a jury selection, G-d does not select the Kohanim who will serve in the Temple, but rather eliminates those who will not. The Torah spells it out with clarify: the blind, the lame, the one with a mutilated face, the one with a limb too long, the hunchback, and the one with an itching disease are all dismissed. The Kohanim who are left become the group of individuals who will serve in the Temple on a rotating basis. But what of the blind Kohen and the hunchback? What’s to become of them?

When the judge for whom I work was presiding over trials during the peak of the pandemic, he would almost always excuse a juror who was a healthcare worker. The public needed them in the hospitals more than in the courtroom. He would also excuse a juror who was a teacher. The public needed them to help our children navigate remote learning platforms and make up for lost time. Does that mean both sides in any given trial may have lost some otherwise perfect jurors? It’s possible. But inasmuch as jury service is our mandatory duty, that duty does not necessarily supersede other critical needs within our community.

I have not finished wrestling with this section of Torah. I may never finish wrestling with it. But I like to think of the “blemished” Kohanim during the Temple period as our frontline workers throughout the pandemic. G-d knew we needed them in our homes and our communities, more than we needed them to show up for a summons.

I am not suggesting that the rest of us aren’t needed at our homes and our communities also. And I am certainly not suggesting this is a good reason to avoid jury duty. But as I sit in the jury assembly room, I will be thinking about this week’s Torah portion and contemplating what it actually means to be disqualified. Perhaps it’s just that someone else needs the experience more than I do because I already have the perspective of knowing how deeply meaningful it is to serve.  May we always embrace the blessing of being chosen.  Or not!

Kirstie Henry is Courtroom Deputy to Hon. John L. Sinatra Jr., member of Congregation Shir Shalom, and proudly serves as Chair of Belonging, LiNK Jewish Buffalo and on the Board of Governors, Buffalo Jewish Federation.

*Voir Dire: a preliminary examination of a witness or a juror by a judge or counsel.

Voir Dire* - Jewish Thought of the week 2022