If you engage at all with social media or the news, you know that the political divisions in this country are intensifying. This is not a new trend, but the culmination of a long-term one. Over the past 25 years, Americans have been moving away from the center and to the extremes – leaving a large chasm in the center.[i]
Given these divisions, it’s not surprising that our debates are heated. According to a recent national survey, 7 in 10 Americans say that the level of civil discourse in the U.S. has deteriorated since President Trump’s election. [ii]
But there’s at least one place that seems to be protected from this polarization: the jury room.
Willow is often asked to conduct focus groups and mock trials to help trial lawyers better understand the strengths and weaknesses of their case from the jury’s perspective. These exercises use social science inquiry techniques, and the insights we gain help our clients structure their arguments and evidence to present their best case at trial.
Over the past year, we have seen that even mock-jurors are serious, thoughtful, and highly respectful of one another and the process, regardless of political leanings, race, gender, or class. Even when their opinions aren’t aligned—which is often—jurors will engage each other with good arguments, each side of the debate actively working to understand the other side’s position. Indeed, after taking a preliminary poll, the group in the majority typically asks those in the minority to explain their points of view, so they can better understand the dissenting position and work towards consensus or compromise.
Further, most mock-jurors take their job seriously and work hard to examine the claims, the arguments, and the expert testimony, in light of the facts of the case. They rely on the evidence to lead them to a story they can believe, and they weigh that story carefully against the law as they understand it. Sometimes they are unanimous in their interpretation of the events; other times they let the majority prevail, agreeing to disagree. Regardless, we see over and over that they recognize their vital role in the system and inherently understand the importance of consensus-building in that role.
What we don’t see is political polarization taking a central role in their deliberations. Participants may lean conservative or liberal as individuals, but the rhetoric often found in the public forum (and especially on social media) simply doesn’t enter into the discussion. In the end, participants generally leave the room chatting animatedly with one another, often enthusiastically debating key points of the case on their walk to the elevator. Whatever issues may divide Americans in the public arena seem to be left behind when they enter the deliberation room.
American public discourse may have changed, but the positive jury dynamics we have witnessed over the past 20 years are still alive and well today. And we’re not the only ones who have noticed. Willow’s President, Sara Parikh, recently facilitated a work session with a group of trial lawyers to discuss new trends in jury behavior. We thought they might report back that real-life juries are exhibiting more discord today than in previous years. But instead, their own experiences corroborated our mock-trial anecdotes.
One of the attorneys in the work session put it like this:
“There’s a difference when people talk to each other, versus how they behave on social media. When they’re having a conversation, even people who would be polarized on social media can reach an agreement. People don’t talk to each other these days, but in a jury room they have to. And that dynamic will change things, even if they’re polarized. I don’t think human beings have changed, internally, and I don’t think they can’t reach a consensus. The fact that they’re forced to talk, instead of posting a meme or retweeting, is going to make it possible.”
We hypothesize that the key is the nature of the task they’re given. Giving a diverse group of individuals a solemn commission and a collective goal compels them to work together, which fosters respect and open-mindedness. Jurors are conscious that their decisions affect real people in profound ways, and that awareness elevates their discussion above the polarization of the day.
It’s clear to us that Americans take their role as judicial deliberators seriously, and it’s likely that causes them to leave their more politicized selves at the door of the jury room. Here at Willow, we believe the nation’s jurors can teach us all a thing or two about civility.
We will be looking more closely at related issues in the coming months. Be sure to sign up for our blog to see our upcoming posts.
[i] Pew Research studies conducted in 1994 and 2017.
[ii] NPR / PBR NewsHour / Marist poll. June 21-25, 2017.