Even Attorney General Eric Holder answers the call of jury duty

On Monday, this writer showed up for jury duty, and so did US Attorney General Eric Holder. In cities such as Washington, where many people never respond to a jury summons, celebrities and the powerful can set a good example.

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    US Attorney General Eric Holder answers a question during a press conference at the US Embassy in Beijing on Oct. 21. On Nov. 8, he reported for jury duty at the DC Superior Court in Washington.
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Monday morning was a BlackBerry moment if ever there was one. Except I didn't have a BlackBerry.

Instead, I leaned in close from my chair as Juror No. 4, and whispered to Juror No. 5, "Isn't that Eric Holder?"

"Uh-uh," she confirmed.

There, in the last row of Room 312 in the D.C. Superior Court, sat the highest law enforcement officer in the United States. Like any other citizen, he had reported for jury duty. Salt-and-pepper hair and thick eyebrows, the attorney general stared straight ahead as Judge Robert Morin presided over jury selection in a DUI case.

Mr. Holder was excused early on, as I eventually was, but not without the judge noting his presence as a teachable moment: Even the attorney general can fulfill his civic duty.

That can't be said of many Americans, who simply ignore a jury summons when it arrives in the mail. According to the National Center for State Courts, 9 percent of Americans don't show up for jury duty. It's much worse, though, in urban areas where populations are more transient.

In cities such as New York, Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles, courts struggle mightily to find jurors. In recent years they have threatened fine and jail time for jury shirkers. Judges remind citizens that serving is a civic duty under penalty of law, not a choice. So far this year in Washington, 45 percent of summoned jurors have failed to appear.

The need for jurors is especially acute in the nation's capital. The city's diplomats and many college students don't qualify (neither do felons). Each new White House and Congress means address changes for residents. The US District Court taps the same mailing lists as the DC Superior Court. The demand means that citizens are summoned every two years.

I've reported for jury duty about a half dozen times, and I can't say I'm always an enthusiastic participant. Sometimes, the timing has been spectacularly inconvenient, though I've appreciated and used the option to defer to a date that better suited my schedule.

Still, these biennial dips in the jury pool have been eye-opening. A trial of a petty cocaine dealer a few years back showed me how race can divide a jury. Another drug case in 2008 illustrated how a bad apple who works for the city can use his position of public trust to his advantage. And I do emerge from these days with an afterglow of civic pride, knowing that I've done my part to keep the courts working and society safe.

In this town, meanwhile, there's always the possibility of star gazing. Twice my husband has spotted former CIA and FBI director William Webster in the jury room. Three years ago Republican Karl Rove and Democrat Madeleine Albright reported on the same day.

The presence of such political heavyweights in the halls of justice might set BlackBerrys atwitter, but the more important point is that busy bigwigs such as these make time for jury duty. Other Americans can, too.

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