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Cultural Insight: The Role of Consensus in South Carolina Justice

Charleston, South Carolina on a bright and sunny day. I chose this picture because after this experience, I have a brighter, sunnier outlook.

I hadn’t intended to write another cultural insight already this week, but sometimes experiences happen that should just be shared. That is the case this week, where I had the unexpected pleasure of serving on a jury.

A fundamental concept of the American justice system is that any individual has the right to file suit against another if they feel they were treated unfairly. Then, before a jury of their peers, the case is heard, and the jury has the sole right to decide the outcome. A judge is part of the trial to insure that the trial is conducted within the scope of the law, but the actual decision, or verdict, is the responsibility of the jury.

Jury duty is determined from a random selection of potential candidates, given by who is registered to vote and/or holder of a driver’s license. When one is summoned, one is required to show up or be subject to being held in contempt of the court.

I had been summoned a few times before, during graduate school when I was in California, and also during the time I lived abroad in Germany and Sweden. In each case, I was able to submit proof of my out-of-state residence to be excused.

About a month ago, after being registered in South Carolina for little more than a year, I received summons to appear for jury duty. It was kind of frustrating, because I wasn’t sure how much I could plan for that week, but it was also kind of exciting, because it was a new experience. And I love new experiences!

My only experience with the US legal system until Monday has been reading John Grisham novels and attending various trainings for engineers on complying with US legal regulations. Both led to some curiosity for first hand experience, but definitely not as a defendant.

It was an interesting process which I can say actually helped to repair a rather tarnished image of my country of birth.

I won’t discuss the trial itself, but rather what I found both so fascinating and so reassuring about the experience.

The jury was a group of twelve people, plus an alternate, who came from all walks of life in the local area. We were a diverse mix of race, class, education, gender, age, and profession. In a sense, we were both representing groups that are often depicted in the media now as being at war.

But for the period of time we were together, as we listened to the arguments, weighed the evidence, and came to our decision, we came together as a group of good, respectful individuals who wanted to do the right thing. Of course, we had different opinions of what the right thing was. But it was clear that each person there took the responsibility of their role seriously. I was also impressed by the insights that were shared, and the respect that was shown for one another’s insight and arguments.

I had been nominated to be the foreman for the jury (occupational hazard, I assume, when one says that one is a management consultant), and I was immensely grateful for the experience from many years working in Sweden, the world extreme in consensus decision making. A unanimous verdict, in a culture used to top-down decision making, might have been a challenge, but I could draw on the skills that I had built from working with consensus in Sweden:

Identifying and emphasising the points we agreed on.

Bringing in input from the diverse team, by pulling the difference viewpoints into a common thread (the famous Swedish red thread)

Aligning around the common red thread to work through the differences

While I may have been used to working on this with groups and teams of engineers and engineering managers, this was the first chance to do it in such a unique and varied group of people. But through their own desire to stand for what they believed was right, as well as the interpersonal respect to listen to and absorb differing opinions, we were able to reach an unanimous verdict to the standard of the preponderance of the evidence presented.

I feel that I have been through a paradigm shift of hope in the future of America, from both the people that I had the pleasure to serve with, as well as the judge and the judicial system here in Columbia, South Carolina.

To read more about jury service in the United States, here is a link.

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