Roughly two months ago, I showed up at Denver’s Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse at 8:15 a.m. for jury duty. Past precedent suggested I’d be back at my office by noon—but, as we all know, precedents aren’t absolute. Although I’d never been seated on a jury in my 24 years as a legal adult, this time I was impaneled with 13 of my peers on a criminal trial. Courtroom 4H would be my “office” for the next seven days.
The case was ugly: The defendant was accused of sexually assaulting his young nephew on multiple occasions. We heard three and a half days of testimony, and after closing arguments we deliberated for about 10 hours. In the end, we decided to acquit the defendant on all counts. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, in large part because of the graphic testimony we heard. Yet we followed the rules laid out for us by the American criminal justice system: We couldn’t convict the defendant because there was not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
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I left that courtroom feeling several emotions simultaneously: I was psychologically spent, and I was devastated for the family around which the trial revolved and for the alleged victim, yet I was inspired by the process. In this particular instance, the system worked because all of the participants played their respective roles well: judge, jury, prosecution, and defense counsel. That doesn’t mean everyone went home happy, but I would submit that few involved in the case could say justice wasn’t served.
The seemingly well-oiled system I experienced, however, is not running quite so smoothly for everyone, as senior editor Natasha Gardner details in this issue’s “Self-Defense” (page 66). For those who need a quick refresher on our legal history, Gardner recounts how in the early 1960s the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress decided that all defendants in criminal cases “would have access to a taxpayer-funded public defender.” This is a bedrock principle of our justice system, one that in 2016 we probably take for granted. Yet that decision did not extend to civil courts, “even though,” as Gardner writes, “someone’s basic needs—such as losing a home to foreclosure—might be at stake.” The result, given the high hourly costs of attorneys, is that many Coloradans are choosing to represent themselves in civil court (they are known as “pro se litigants”), ostensibly to the detriment of all involved. Gardner’s piece explores several potential solutions to a problem that on its face may seem wonky and obscure, but which actually has the potential to affect every one of us.
The United States has a proud tradition of working to ensure “justice for all,” something I was fortunate to see firsthand as a juror earlier this year. But the increase in the number of pro se litigants, and the reasons behind that rise, is a troubling development. Coloradans who are going through divorces, dealing with landlord disputes, or even trying to change their names might not actually have access to the justice they’ve been promised. If we truly want to live up to the lofty ideals on which this country was founded, it’s our responsibility to explore viable options to remedy this disturbing situation.