Duty? Maybe It's Really Self-Help.

This courtroom has a disconcerting decorative duality, like a person dressed only from the waist down. The lower half of the cavernous room has glowing wood wainscoting, and the well is set off by a surround of ornamental spindles. But above, the walls are flat and characterless, as though the money ran out, or the interest. Above the bench is the ubiquitous legend in mustardy gilt: IN GOD WE TRUST. The font is slightly off in several of the letters, as though they wore out from sheer exhaustion and had to be imperfectly replaced.

With apologies to true believers, this is undoubtedly a place in which trust is put squarely in human beings, the fidgety, polyglot, slightly ill-humored group who are waiting to see if they will be chosen to serve on a jury. Each has been given a pamphlet explaining why jury service is good for the nation. Few seem to be convinced that it is good for the soul.

Americans should be thrilled to serve on juries, since even a cursory study of our national personality would suggest that we have become the most judgmental people on earth. The popular TV shows have this as their bedrock; one wrong answer to some meaningless trivia question and you become the "Weakest Link" in the minds of millions. On Court TV online, viewers can weigh in on whether a woman charged with killing her husband in Las Vegas should be sentenced to life in prison, whether they know the facts of the case or simply don't like the way she wears her hair. The average American with a television, a computer or a newspaper becomes casually expert in conviction or acquittal in the court of public opinion with only a modicum of information: he's a bad guy, she was provoked, the cops acted properly. Darryl Strawberry, Robert Downey Jr., Bob Kerrey: stop a dozen people on the street, and they will not hesitate to pass judgment with perfect certainty.

Real judgment is quite different from and substantially more demanding than this instant-messaging variety, which may be one of the many reasons, along with the disruption of their daily routines, that people try to avoid jury duty. In Dallas County last year, according to The Dallas Morning News, less than 20 percent of those summoned showed up. New York City's numbers were once even worse, but its courts do better now, with attendance sometimes topping 50 percent, because of widespread changes in the system: eliminating jury-service exemptions for doctors and lawyers, adding welfare rolls to the voter-registration and licensed-driver lists as sources for summonses, increasing the pay to $40 a day. For those who actually show up, there may be hours of waiting, then the often tedious voir dire, the questioning to discern bias, point of view, fitness. If they are chosen, there are the days, perhaps weeks, of trial testimony, the need to pay attention, to listen carefully to the judge's instructions and to consider seriously the standard of reasonable doubt. The slam-bang judgments of modern life are like "Jeopardy!" questions; jury service is a blue-book exam, a term paper.

Yet while people complain in advance that they won't get paid at work, that they need to care for their children, that they have doctor's appointments and vacation plans, at the end many people who serve on juries feel enlarged, even ennobled by what they have done. At a time when so many rituals and civic experiences have lost that sense of moment, when wedding vows have become increasingly fungible and voting has been devalued by the dangling chads of Florida and the big money of campaign finance, service on a jury remains perhaps the only public service that, for all its shortcomings, its inconveniences, its impracticalities, still has the power to elevate an ordinary citizen. In his typical offhanded profundity, G. K. Chesterton once wrote of society, "When it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity."

No romantic illusions about the process: it is flawed. Stephen Adler, in his book "The Jury," did a marvelous job of documenting through case histories how badly it can go wrong, how poorly it sometimes functions. In Virginia last year a task force recommended several common-sense ways to make the process better, including letting jurors take notes, letting them ask questions and forcing judges and lawyers to write jury instructions so that they are comprehensible to those who are not members of the bar. In his book Adler suggests that those instructions be given at the beginning of a trial instead of at the end, so that "juries can learn the rules before they play the game."

But perhaps there is also a better way to sell jury duty to those called to its service. In voir dire in that courtroom in New York, when a juror invoked human nature to explain an understandable bias, one of the attorneys replied, "Throw human nature out the window." But that's not exactly right. Serving well on a jury requires the highest level of human nature, the part that is thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic and fair. In this self-help age, if someone offered a short course that would teach you to better find, use and value those qualities in yourself, thousands would plunk down good money to enter that particular lecture hall, confident that what they would learn would make them better parents, partners, workers, people.

What if that lecture hall is really a courtroom? What if we found a way in our everyday lives to listen to all the facts, to refuse to judge by appearance or charm alone, to seek to understand the rules and to apply them fairly? What if it turned out, in avoiding jury service, that we were avoiding one of our best chances at becoming, not only better citizens, but better human beings? That old standby of democracy de Tocqueville said it so eloquently that it bears repeating: "By obliging men to turn their attention to other affairs than their own, it rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society."