Motherhood Held in Contempt

Due to a recent change in court policy in California, almost every resident is now required to show up when called for jury duty. No longer may people check a box on their jury summons and avoid serving because they care for young children or are self-employed.

Only three excuses are now accepted as valid: having a physical or mental disability interfering with being a juror; having served on a jury within the past 12 months; or being a sworn police officer. Every one else must show up — or risk being held in contempt of court.

Elimination of jury service exemptions is part of a nationwide trend of implementing what is euphemistically called “Jury System Improvement Efforts.” These “improvements” are recommended in the new “Standards Relating to Juror Use and Management,” developed by the American Bar Association, the National Association for Court Administration, and other national court organizations for use by states in revising their jury systems. Fourteen states have adopted the new standards, and ten more are currently working on approving these practices.

Superficially, this may not seem a big deal — jury duty is a civic obligation imposed on all citizens, and all that. But eliminating the exemption for primary caregivers, commonly exercised by moms with young children, is another indication of a rather troubling trend — the increasingly family-unfriendly nature of the modern state.

In the past, our society recognized both the cultural benefits and burdens assumed by the family on behalf of society at large, primarily in the proper raising of future generations. Affirming this, the government afforded certain privileges and benefits to those who shouldered the often-difficult duties and responsibilities of parenthood. These benefits included marriage tax breaks, inheritance rights and other special considerations, such as excusing mothers from jury duty in favor of taking care of their children.

After all, families are the primary means of transmitting civilization and culture from one generation to the next, the building blocks of the future. It was generally acknowledged that families raising honest, productive, well-educated children were doing important work benefiting everyone. Furthermore, it was accepted and reinforced that a mom has a primary duty to care for her family, and certainly not to stand in service of the state.

The new jury duty rules are particularly punishing for stay-at-home moms. The whole reason for her being home is so the kids don't have to go to babysitters. Maybe the fastest way to bring back the exemption for caregivers is for moms to start bringing their children with them to jury duty. Once jury assembly rooms begin looking more like nurseries than courthouses, judges and attorneys might again start seeing the benefits of the old rules.

The growing numbers of home-schooling families are hit even worse. Not only do the children lose their mom, they lose their teacher too. Given the personalized nature of most home-schooling curricula, it is difficult, if not impossible, for someone else to simply pick up where mom left off. Thus, a lengthy trial could be devastating for the children's education.

If raising children is society's most critical job, then a mother's work is far too essential to interrupt for such an ordinary task as jury duty, which, let's face it, can be handled by just about anyone. But to her children, a mother is everything, a unique and irreplaceable person. Her absence, even temporarily, can cause distress and alarm. This potential harm to children arising from their mother's prolonged absence was considered uppermost when granting jury service exemptions to primary caregivers in the past.

A juror, on the other hand, is intended to be an ordinary, everyday person whose judgment represents the general sense of the community. Unlike a parent, those called for jury pools are assumed to be interchangeable. Jurors are not supposed to be exceptional but rather, by definition, common people performing a task nearly everyone can do.

But these premises are now subtly shifting. The tacit assumption of the new jury service rules is that a mother's first duty is not to her children, but to the state. Kids in her house must play second fiddle to strangers she's never met. Her role of “citizen” takes precedence over that of “mom.”

Put another way, the state now demands an out-of-balance blind loyalty from us. Children at home? Too bad. No suitable babysitters? Tough luck. Stuck on a jury of endless duration? That's your (and your kids') problem. We'll see you in court on the date of your summons, comrade — or else.

Ironically, in these days of easy divorce laws, legalized abortion and subsidized day care, government is reducing parents’ responsibility toward their own families, while at the same time increasing their obligations to the state itself. Divorcing your spouse nowadays is easy — but just try divorcing your government! You'll quickly find out where the state expects your primary loyalty to lie.

My impression is that it’s not with the people sharing your home.

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