I've often been abroad on July 4. There is a special poignancy to appreciating your country from afar. Singing “God Bless America” with the sweetness of missing your country, this amazing land, from across the Pond, or further away.
But this year I celebrated from the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse in Washington. Yes, jury duty. Superior Court.
Celebrate, you ask? Doesn't everyone hate jury duty?
They do. They dread it. People send you condolence notes, as though you've fallen ill. "I'm so sorry!" they say. “Try to have a good 4th of July anyway.”
Friends and colleagues tell you how to avoid it:
"If he didn't commit this crime, he probably committed another. Lock him up," they tell you to say during the jury selection process.
"Tell them you come from a family full of police officers," a friend suggested.
"Act crazy. You'll get off."
But I love jury duty. It's a trip, a journey, an unpredictable treat. First of all, it's so interesting. The assembled masses are well, the assembled masses who didn't ask for this. People assigned to do this by lottery. Elegant Georgetown ladies who lunch, to impatient young tech types, to young men from the streets who have themselves been in court more than a few times. They might tell you about their pasts, if you listen long enough.
You see, in jury duty, there is plenty of time to listen. First you sit in the juror lounge, as CNN streams the latest election chatter or plane crash news. Then, your number is called and you line up. Everyone is a number. The court doesn’t sugarcoat it. It’s purposeful, to protect your privacy, they say. They hand out pencils for the inevitable form. Then, you sit a lot. You meet the defendant, the prosecution, the lawyers involved. The judge and the lawyers interview each of 60 jurors, to get to the chosen 12. It takes, well.....hours.
Meanwhile, you chat with people you don't know, people you would never otherwise meet.
I sit between a young female editor in "the intelligence community," she says, and a Metro mechanic named “Nathan.” Did you know, Metro’s problems are really with the tracks, not the trains? The trains themselves don't break down much, Nathan says. It's usually a quick fix, he said. You know when a train sputters and jerks to a stop sometimes? That’s an electrical problem, not the brakes, Nathan says.
Nathan likes his job. He said he’s not a fan of the newest trains, though. They’re so heavy, they are doing damage to the tracks.
Jack Evans, are you listening?
Nathan lives not far from the scene of the crime this jury will be judging. I notice he spends a lot of time with the judge and counsel as they interview us, one by one. "I was talking about my past,” he answers when I ask why. He looks down as his voice trails off. "I said I could be objective."
But really, Nathan needs sleep. His shift at Metro starts at midnight, every night. Train maintenance takes place while we riders sleep. He slumps in his chair next to me.
The crime this jury will hear is an alleged assault and property damage by a young man who looks like Nathan, but is staring into space. He has a public defender. The prosecutor is an elegant African-American attorney with a slight accent. West Indian, maybe, or recently African.
I’m emailing and keeping up with work. "Oh, you D.C. people are so funny, you're always getting called for jury duty," a Virginia colleague says to me. She's right. Because of the overlapping jurisdictions, D.C. residents get summoned a lot. In 2014, the D.C. Superior Court sent more than 150,000 jury summonses. A study said 70,000 people didn’t respond.
If you’ve ever been sued, you know how important the jury is. When I was 21, I was driving to my aunt’s house in Cleveland Park, when I scraped a Metrobus. I was sued for $2 million. There were a lot of ambulance-chasing lawyers involved, even though there were no ambulances and no one was seriously hurt, beyond a cut finger. We offered to settle for $80,000, but the plaintiffs lawyers, representing the bus driver, Metro, and one passenger, laughed at us.
The jury voted to award the plaintiffs $6,000, only.
See, juries are important.
Also, look at how well our justice system works, compared to most. Cops can get a fair trial in Baltimore despite the legitimate anger in the community over Freddie Gray’s death.
In the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck, playing Atticus Finch, represented a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1950s Alabama, based on the premise that justice was possible. "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks,” Finch tells his daughter Scout in the Academy Award-winning film. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
In America, each one of us is blessed with the chance to participate in a system that bests almost any other country’s. And, by caring, by climbing inside of other people’s skin, to make it work better. To try to be fair and put one’s biases aside -- even this is a magnificent challenge that jury duty provides. And it’s free!
No, jury duty isn’t perfect. One of my seatmates suggested that the introductory video be replaced. No question.
Also, when the judge and counsel talk with the prospective jurors, the judge turns on a “noisemaker” that emits the sound of static from the sound system. In the age of iTunes and Spotify, couldn’t it be the sound of a waterfall, or the ocean?
That aside, jury duty is a wonderful opportunity to play a small yet critical part to uphold that precious idea we call democracy. With all its tedium, lines, and opportunity to be bored, jury duty is also a chance to tune into the beauty and range of humanity, the problems that afflict us, and the realization that we are all threads in the same piece of cloth, a beautiful tapestry called the U.S.A.
Happy Birthday, America.
Calling 2016 the “most unbelievable” election campaign of his career, Gerald F. Seib, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, slicedand diced the politics and personalities of the presidential election to a rapt Exchequer Club audience, offering up Ginsu-sharp insights at the Club’s monthly luncheon meeting.
If the 2016 election looks something like a trainwreck, Seib, known to friends as “Jerry,” started the talk with a shout-out to D.C. Councilmember and Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans for his aggressive efforts to fix the ailing Metro system. “As someone who’s ridden Metro since the 70s, I’m with you, man. Thank you for what you’re doing. I wish you luck.”
Evans, long credited for his sound leadership of the District’s finances as chair of the D.C. Council Finance Committee, is getting national recognition as he battles Congress and regional inertia to restore the nation’s fifth-largest transit system to health.
Back to the train wreck: Seib said the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump surprised everyone, including Sanders and Trump themselves. Seib, having covered presidential campaigns since 1980, said Trump says things on a weekly basis that would disqualify other candidates, but voters don’t mind “because they think he is speaking a larger truth.”
Gone are the days when the Republican party simply had to choose to be the Wall Street Party vs. the Walmart Party, as Seib described it, quoting former Minnesota governor and current CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable Tim Pawlenty. If the Tea Party “ripped the wiring” out of the house of the GOP, Trump has “landed on it” with the force of a 757, painted “Trump,” of course.
His core supporters are “frightened, angry or both,” Seib said. “Experts don’t know anything,” but they’re in charge. The voters are angry about it. “Trump validates all those feelings and makes them feel that they’re not alone.”
Sanders and Trump are feeding on voter sentiment that “free trade is bad, big banks get away with too much,” and U.S. involvement in the Middle East needs to scaled back to near isolationism.
Seib said he doubted Hillary Clinton would be indicted over her handling of a private email server. And he expressed his somewhat surprised relief to Exchequer Club Chancellor Jerry Buckley, founder of the law firm BuckleySandler, because in years of carpooling their sons to school, “We never had an accident at Chevy Chase Circle,” in thechaotic morning commute.
One big question is whether Clinton can draw back the white working class voters who supported her in 2008, Seib said. When asked by The Georgetown Dish’s Bill Rice whether the Democrats could pull off a third term at all, Seib said it was an “underappreciated question.”
“It’s not an easy thing to do,” Seib said. “It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do.”
But it’s an unprecedented time in American politics. The Wall Street Journal recently studied the way people get their news in America, finding that the Facebook effect – in which people read mostly the news they want, from the perspective they want, makes them “happy and angry at the same time.”
Seib knows a little about the effects of political extremism. After graduating from the University of Kansas School of Journalism in 1978, he joined the Wall Street Journal's Dallas bureau, and left two years later to work for the Wall Street Journal in Washington D.C., covering the Pentagon and State Department. Later in 1987, when Seib was based in Cairo to cover the Middle East, he was was grabbed off the street on assignment in Iran and detained by police on suspicion that he was a spy for Israel.
In a 2002 interview with the Capital-Journal about his five-day detention in Iran, Seib said, "These risks that journalists run are still worth running. Somebody has to take upon themselves the job of communicating about the world to the world."
An emotional gathering at the downtown D.C. offices of law firm K&L Gates attracted federal officials, the media and local U.S. military veterans to highlight a hidden scourge.
Recent research shows that after serving our country, U.S. military veterans often face significant financial challenges related to multipledeployments, frequent relocation, and employment availability for military spouses and expenses related to transitioning to civilian life -- conditions that can hinder financial stability and asset building. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) released survey data during Military Appreciation Month highlighting this hidden plague facing military veterans and their families. Military participants surveyed after enrolling in NFCC’s Sharpen Your Financial Focus® (Sharpen) program were found to have:
· Higher levels of unsecured debt than the average program participant;
· Tangible assets that were 16.2% less than the overall program participant average;
· Unsecured debt balances 7.1% higher than the combined average;
· Student loan debt, as revealed by 36% of surveyed military Sharpen clients.
The survey, highlighted by the Women in Housing and Finance Foundation, showed that military veterans held credit card debt and mortgagedebt in higher proportions than other cohorts measured. While veterans held less student loan debt than the general student population or “breadwinner moms,” they had the highest amount of auto loan debt, averaging $13,708 per person, and the highest average amount of credit card debt per person, $11,071, versus $10,000 per student and $2428 per “breadwinner mom.”
Cory Hixson (USMC), an Iraq War veteran who now works as a financial adviser for Edward Jones in Marysville, Ohio, said his own experience reflected some of the challenges identified in NFCC’s research.
“After serving in Falluja 2004-2005 and returning home, I hit the fast forward button on life. I had seen how short life could be. I set out to have the house, the new cars in the driveway, the picket fence and a family. My savings quickly went to zero and I found myself in financial trouble,” said Hixson. “But along the way I realized I could help people because of my experiences. I found my calling as financial adviser to serve others. If I can help fellow veterans as well as individual investors avoid any of the mistakes I made and set their families up for financial success, that’s what I intend to do.”
WHF Foundation board member and Army intelligence veteran Brandy Schantz, now of Arlington, nodded her head. “I am a former U.S. Army Officer and Army wife. My husband retired from the Army in 2008 and we settled in Rosslyn. We would be trading places here because we faced similar problems alternating deployments. I would go, then he would go. It was constant,” she said. Schantz is now a real estate agent with Synergy Home Sales.
Statistics show that veterans face financial hardship to a greater extent than others, but there are resources.
Programs like NFCC’s Sharpen Your Financial Focus serve civilians as well as active duty, reserve, guard, retired, veterans, and family members associated with all branches of the military. In the first two years of the Sharpen program (September 2013 – August 2015), 13% of the program’s clients were military. That figure has risen to 36% during the first quarter of 2016.
Officials from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Treasury Dept. attended the event, introduced by WHF Foundation President and former National Association of State Credit Union Supervisors President Mary Martha Fortney.
“It is vital that our military veterans get the support they need to build financial security after all they have done to protect our national security,” said Ann Estes, a mother of two military sons and a daughter-in-law military spouse as well as NFCC vice president of business development. “I've seen personally what these young men and women go through. We are proud to do our part to assist those who have served and protected our country so bravely.”
Warren G. "Bud" Schneeweis (USCG, Ret.), director of the Military Financial Readiness Project of the FINRA Foundation, said more data would be released this summer, and resources are available. Schneeweis is former U.S. Coast Guard officer and a Certified Financial Planner and Accredited Financial Counselor.
Founded in 1951, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®) is the nation’s first and largest nonprofit dedicated to improving people’s financial well-being. With 600 member offices serving 50 states and Puerto Rico, our NFCC® Certified Credit Counselors are financial advocates, empowering millions of consumers to take charge of their finances through one-on-one financial reviews that address credit card debt, student loans, housing decisions and overall money management. Make one of the best financial decisions of your life. For expert guidance and advice, call 800.388.2227 or visit nfcc.org today.
About the Women in Housing and Finance Foundation
For 35 years, Women in Housing and Finance (WHF) has provided an open forum on national financial, economic and political matters affecting the fields of financial services and housing, especially for women. The WHF Foundation commits volunteer and financial resources to help women and families in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area through charitable and educational services including financial empowerment training.