This past month I had jury duty. It was my first opportunity to experience the jury process in the state of Alaska. Like all those called to serve on jury duty for the month of September, I was given a juror number and instructed to phone the Clerk of Courts’ office to listen to a pre-recorded message to learn if we had to report or not. Surprisingly, I was only called to appear once in the course of the month. Those of us who were summoned that day to the Dimond Court House were seated in a kind of holding area for prospective jurors on the third floor. After receiving a form to fill out, I got settled for what I thought was going to be a long period of waiting. I came equipped with my electronic devices and enough work to keep me busy for a couple of days. A court clerk asked for our attention as he began a video on jury duty as a civic responsibility.
While we were watching the video, the clerk turned it off and introduced the judge who informed us that the case had been resolved and no trial was needed. The judge thanked us showing up and expressed the importance of serving as jurors. With that, we were excused.
But the portion of the video that I was able to watch along with the words from the judge provided a good reminder about the significance of the duties of citizenship. Every American has the right to a trial before a jury of his or her peers. Serving on a jury makes it possible for a criminal or civil defendant to exercise that important legal right. There is something profoundly democratic in ordinary men and women coming into our courtrooms, listening to the case for the prosecution and defense, weighing the arguments and the evidence and deciding on the guilt or innocence of their fellow citizens.
Another civic duty that is on my mind these days is voting. The right to vote is fundamental to our representative democracy and is not only a civil right, but also a civic responsibility. Because we are able to exercise our right to vote so freely in this country, it is sometimes taken for granted. But I am reminded that many people around the world are denied the right to vote: either because their government is a dictatorship like China that does not allow its citizens to vote at all or because the so-called elections are rigged so the ruling party always seems to win by a landslide. In light of this, I rejoice in seeing news clips from countries that show thousands of people patiently standing in long lines for as many hours as it took to cast their votes in their country’s election.
Even in our own country voting rights has been the moving force in achieving freedom and civil rights for all of our people. The 15th Amendment, which gave the right to vote to freed black slaves in the years after emancipation and the defeat of the Confederacy, was a great step forward in according African-Americans full citizenship and equality (along with the 1964 Voting Rights Act) and in 1920 the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote.
It is important that all who participate in the public life of society do so with the intention of promoting the common good and upholding the dignity of each person. That is to say, we cannot think simply about ourselves when we go to the voting booth. From my perspective, I believe that we are called upon to make choices about political candidates and ballot measures based on two fundamental moral principles: the intrinsic sacredness and dignity of every human being and the promotion of the common good. Our responsibility is to apply these fundamental principles to evaluate public policy and candidates for electoral office. It asks if this candidate or policy promotes or undermines the right to life, human dignity, and the common good including the liberties that are vital to our society. One example of upholding the common good is seen in strengthening the family and defending marriage from distortion or attempts to redefine it. Another example would be providing health care for the growing number of people who cannot afford it, while respecting human life, human dignity, and religious freedom in our health care system.
These moral principles also compel us to attend to the needs of the poor as well as uphold the rights of workers and immigrants. Likewise, we are to express solidarity with the global community and protect the environment. While these principles of Catholic social teaching are grounded in our desire to stand up for human life and dignity as well as the good of all society, I am grateful that there are many people in our state and in our nation, from a variety of religious traditions as well as those of no faith, who are committed to working toward liberty and justice for all.
I urge you to exercise your right to vote this week in the local election and, in the event that you need a reminder, the last day to register to vote in the general election is October 7.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.