Last week, for the first time in my almost three score years, I was called for jury duty.

Along with 68 of my fellow citizens good and true, I duly reported to the Boone County Courthouse. In doing so, I participated in one of the two great public rituals of our democracy, the other being voting.

Coincidentally, I have recently been reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal study of our republic, Democracy in America. The French author visited the United States in 1831, just 10 years after Missouri was admitted to the Union. In his work, which became a bestseller on its publication in 1835 and remains an essential study of our early development, he overflows with praise for the benefits of a jury-based judicial system.

It was virtually unknown in his homeland and he wrote that Americans had given power to juries far beyond what was allowed in Great Britain, which imported the jury system to its North American colonies.

“The system of the jury, as it is understood in America, appears to me to be as direct and as extreme a consequence of the sovereignty of the people as universal suffrage,” de Tocqueville wrote in a chapter titled "Causes Mitigating Tyranny In The United States."

The jury, he wrote, acted as an extension of the education system at that time.

“I think that the practical intelligence and political good sense of the Americans are mainly attributable to the long use which they have made of the jury in civil causes,” de Tocqueville wrote. “I do not know whether the jury is useful to those who are in litigation; but I am certain it is highly beneficial to those who decide the litigation; and I look upon it as one of the most efficacious means for the education of the people which society can employ.”

And I saw on Tuesday that it can still enlighten.

For many, it was their first time in a courtroom. For them, it was a look at what it takes to operate the judiciary. On their way in they saw the marshals who conduct the security screening and the personnel needed to check in the prospective jurors. In the courtroom, we were introduced to attorneys, a judge and the courtroom personnel that support them — marshals, court reporters and clerks.

As the voir dire — French for “speak the truth” — questions were asked, we saw that not all of us were newcomers. Some of us had been arrested before. We also learned that some of us distrust the police, two of us were actually married to each other and randomly called in the same group, several knew our elected Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight and one of us — me — had read a media account of the case.

We were repeatedly told that only the truth mattered in our answers. As only 12 people could make the final jury, the reasons — if any — those of us, including myself, were not retained is unknown.

What the process does is give everyone who is called a new perspective on the judicial system.

“The jury, and more especially the jury in civil cases, serves to communicate the spirit of the judges to the minds of all the citizens; and this spirit, with the habits which attend it, is the soundest preparation for free institutions,” de Tocqueville wrote. “It imbues all classes with a respect for the thing judged, and with the notion of right.”

The observations in de Tocqueville’s books — there were four volumes in all — are interesting today because they are those of an outsider who found great virtue in the young republic. The equality of Americans before the law, unknown in European countries that retained a large landed aristocracy and rigid class systems, was an essential part of teaching Americans how to behave politically.

“Thus the jury, which is the most energetic means of making the people rule, is also the most efficacious means of teaching it to rule well,” he wrote.

De Tocqueville used comparisons familiar to his readers to make his points. He noted that Britain, with its empire that included Canada and Australia, had planted a system of law that included juries in all its colonies.

But only in the United States then — and today — are juries routinely used in non-criminal cases. It is our duty to protect that right.

“A judicial institution which obtains the suffrages of a great people for so long a series of ages, which is zealously renewed at every epoch of civilization, in all the climates of the earth and under every form of human government, cannot be contrary to the spirit of justice,” de Tocqueville wrote.

Rudi Keller is news editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune. He can be reached at