The Washington Pundit’s Perfect Society

I was reading this fascinating article about Japan’s adoption in 2009 of a jury system, when it struck me: the Pundits on the Potomac would love to have a society like this. From the NY Times:

Japan is preparing to adopt a jury-style system in its courts in 2009, the most significant change in its criminal justice system since the postwar American occupation. But for it to work, the Japanese must first overcome some deep-rooted cultural obstacles: a reluctance to express opinions in public, to argue with one another and to question authority.
To win over a skeptical public, Japan’s courts have held some 500 mock trials across the country, including six here in Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Still, polls show that 80 percent are dreading the change and do not want to serve as jurors, a reluctance that was on display among the mock jurors here.
They preferred directing questions to the judges. They never engaged one another in discussion. Their opinions had to be extracted by the judges and were often hedged by the Japanese language’s rich ambiguity. When a silence stretched out and a judge prepared to call upon a juror, the room tensed up as if the jurors were students who had not done the reading….
Hoping for some response, the judge waited 14 seconds, then said, “What does everybody think?”
Nine seconds passed. “Doesn’t anyone have any opinions?”
After six more seconds, one woman questioned whether repentance should lead to a reduced sentence. “The way the defendant expresses himself and such, it could be viewed as someone who’s not good at it,” she said. “So there’s no way for us to know what is the degree of repentance from how he has repented in his own way.”
After it was all over, only a single juror said he wanted to serve on a real trial. The others said even the mock trial had left them stressed and overwhelmed….
Robert E. Precht, an American defense lawyer and a co-director of the juries and democracy program at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center of the University of Montana, has been giving talks on the American jury system in meetings with judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and ordinary citizens. Changing the attitudes of a public used to being passively governed was proving the greatest challenge, he said.
“D-Day is going to happen in May 2009, and I think people are seriously going to start panicking next year, as citizens actually face the very real possibility of being summoned, and then have to go into this very strange environment, speak in front of authority figures and actually be questioned about their own opinions,” Mr. Precht said. “And I’m concerned that’s going to freak people out.”
With those concerns in mind, some Japanese are trying to teach their compatriots how to argue.

Despite what some who suffer from Compulsive Centrist Disorder might think, disagreement is a good thing. I think we would be better off if our pundit class moved to Japan. Of course, I don’t wish that on the Japanese…

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4 Responses to The Washington Pundit’s Perfect Society

  1. Janne says:

    Rather, call it the cult of the expert. Among your peers, Japanese are very argumentative. Or look at the Diet (Japanese lower house) where fistfights aren’t unknown. But there is a hesitancy here about arguing against people who “know better” (which, in a number of cases, they obviously do). So in a trial, for instance, you have prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, policemen – all people who have long training and presumably a lot of experience with the law and with the trial system. Butting in as a completely clueless amateur (which, from that point of view, a juror undoubtedly is) is a pretty big social no-no and a good way to make a public ass of yourself as you amply expose just how ignorant you are about these legal proceedings.
    What would need to change for the jury system to actually start working is not removing deference for authorities – that’s not really the root issue – but to alter the perception of the trial system to one where the juror really is accepted as a domain expert in their own right.

  2. Michael Schmidt says:

    Very interesting problem, and a very helpful comment from Janne. But

  3. Dunc says:

    OK, I dunno how the US jury system works, but in the UK it would be absolutely verbotten for the judge to enquire as to a juror’s opinions. The opinions of individual jurors, and absolutely all discussion amongst the jurors, is absolutely priviledged. You are not supposed to discuss the case in any way outside the jury room, or in the presence of anyone who is not on the jury.

    After it was all over, only a single juror said he wanted to serve on a real trial. The others said even the mock trial had left them stressed and overwhelmed….

    Well, as someone who has served on the jury for a murder trial, that sounds about right. Nobody in their right mind wants to serve on a jury, and it is very stressful. However, it is also an important civic duty. Sometimes living in a civilised society requires us to do things we wouldn’t want to do – like pay taxes, or serve on juries.

  4. PMembrane says:

    “cult of the expert”
    A rather derogatory-sounding phrase to use to describe what is simple common sense. Throw out expertise, and you’re instant prey to the first charlatan who comes along. Eventually, you’ll end up here.

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