CT Judicial Branch

I recently had the opportunity to visit Utah Beach in Normandy. Looking out over the wide, empty ocean, it was hard to imagine that the fate of civilization was decided there on June 6, 1944, and the following days, weeks, and months. Thousands of men
on thousands of boats came to this place knowing they could very well be killed. Many were. But they came, and fought, and died so that we could live in peace and freedom.

The service of brave American men and women is the quintessential definition of patriotism. For the love of country, so many risked and gave their lives. My wife, Lucretia, and I visited the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer where over 9,600 Americans are buried. There were rows and rows of white crosses, and the occasional Star of David, bearing the name of the buried soldier, when they died, and where they were from, for as far as the eye could see.

It was an incredibly bracing and emotional experience. Our guide told us the vast majority of the dead were 24 or 25 years old.

I came back from our vacation in France just 11 days before July 4, Independence Day. I watched the magnificent film, Saving Private Ryan, for the first time in years. If you haven’t ever seen it, please do.

Then on the front page of the July 6 edition of the Hartford Courant, a story ran indicating that a group calling itself the Patriotic Front had distributed posters in Cheshire on the Fourth, with red, white and blue stenciled phrases like “One Nation” and “United We Stand.” The article continued to describe the “Patriotic Front” as “one of America’s most active white nationalist hate groups.

One Cheshire resident, Josh Rowe, was quoted as saying: “I was upset to see a fascist organization recruiting on the streets of Cheshire…. My concern would be that somebody would mistake it for simple patriotic decorations and go to that website…that it could send them on the path towards extremism.”

Incidents like this always bring to mind the famous dictum attributed to Samuel Johnson that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Since the dawn of civilization various miscreants, totalitarian-minded thugs, delusional fanatics, and power-crazed demagogues have claimed that they, and only they, are the true protectors of the nation, the true patriots, and wrapped themselves in the flag of whatever country they occupy.

I suppose this will continue as long as civilization exists.

But seeing the graves of the true patriots in Normandy, and soon after observing the toxic activities of the “Patriotic Front,” was truly a stunning contrast. Far from being patriotic, the “Patriotic Front” is a refutation of all that is best in our remarkable multi-ethnic republic. With all its flaws, this country is still a miracle.

Which finally leads me to my point. Most of us do not have the opportunity—or the desire—to contribute to society in the same way as those who have served in the armed forces. The men and women who died freeing Europe from the Nazi yoke deserve to be honored to the highest degree. They are the true patriots. But what can he rest of us do? How can the average person express their love of country?

Not, I submit, by loud, facile proclamations that they are patriots. Not by wrapping themselves in the flag and proclaiming that anyone who disagrees with them is not a good American. Not by mindlessly supporting a government policy they think is wrong.

When being harangued by a colleague who declared, “My country, right or wrong” during a Senate debate in the post-Civil War period, Senator Carl Schurz replied: “My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

I submit that for the average citizen, one of the best ways — perhaps the best way — to express their patriotism is to serve on a jury.

This, in truth and fact, is democracy in the trenches. A group of people who don’t know each other gather together, listen to evidence, evaluate that evidence in light of the judge’s instructions on the law, and decide, for example: if someone should go to jail; lose their business; or pay large sums of money to someone they have injured.

Then they disperse and go back to what they do.

The jury system provides a unique opportunity for the average citizen to partake in our civic life by making fundamental decisions that can affect the lives of civil litigants and criminal defendants and victims, as well as their community or their country.

I have been a judge for 30 years. I am well aware that most people cringe when they get a jury summons. I know their very first thought is, “How can I get out of this?” During jury selection proceedings, I have heard all of the excuses — some valid, many transparently ridiculous.

I know that the last thing most people want to do is give up days, or weeks, of their lives to sit in a courtroom and listen to evidence and arguments. Some people are simply afraid to make difficult, consequential decisions that will affect the lives of litigants. Some people, probably the majority, initially simply don’t want to be bothered and inconvenienced and view jury service as a massive nuisance.

But I contend that jury service is one of the quiet, concrete ways that average citizens can express their devotion to their communities and their love of country. It is certainly not as dramatic as serving in the armed forces. But sitting on a jury, and taking their responsibilities seriously, is one of the best ways anyone can fulfill their societal responsibilities and express their love of country.

After every jury trial over which I presided, I would talk to the jurors in the jury room. I never asked them why they decided as they did; that was none of my business. But I did ask the jurors —hundreds of them over many years— if they had gained trust in, and respect for, our court system as a consequence of sitting on a jury.

I can count on one hand the number of people who regretted serving. Almost to a person, jurors who had decided a case came out of the experience with enhanced trust in the court system and the jury system. Many said they never had any idea about how a real trial worked, having gained their view of the process by watching television shows. Many said they would like to serve again. The vast majority left the court proud they had served.

There are many ways to serve, and many ways to express patriotism, but for the average citizen, the most accessible is to sit on a jury, not scheme a way out of it.

If you are summoned for a case, support the system, don’t just sit around proclaiming how flawed it is or what a nuisance serving is. Isn’t serving more important than enduring a slight inconvenience? How could we explain to one of those young, courageous men who died saving the world that serving is too inconvenient?

Serving on a jury is patriotic. Please try it if you are given the chance.

The Hon. Douglas Lavine of West Hartford is a judge of the Connecticut Appellate Court. He has been a member of the Connecticut Judiciary since 1993 and on the Appellate Court since 2006. Views expressed in this column are his alone.