Paul O’Neill has an interesting perspective on what Election Day offers to individual citizens: the chance to become one of the millions of people who help to make our democracy work. That’s exactly as it should be, he says. But people have another, and perhaps even more significant, opportunity to further the democratic process as a member of a vastly smaller cohort. You can, when asked, serve as a juror.
If you’re empaneled as a juror, you’ll be, not one of millions, but one of 12 or maybe only six other citizens taking part in one of “democracy’s greatest civic opportunities,” he says.
O’Neill feels strongly about the role of the juror in our society. You wouldn’t expect less from the Ulster County Commissioner of Jurors. But if you’ve had occasion to be called for jury duty on O’Neill’s watch, you’ll have heard him tell you in passionate detail exactly why jury duty is so important.
It’s a matter, he says, of having your voice heard at the local or even the national level. “I can’t overemphasize its importance,” he says. “The decisions our jurors make are so important – and it’s something that exists almost nowhere else in the world.” Jury duty, O’Neill believes, isn’t a duty: “It’s a right.”
O’Neill illustrates his beliefs by providing prospective jurors with what he calls the “historical backdrop” of the very spot in which those citizens are sitting. The Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston is no ordinary building; it’s the handsome late-Georgian descendant of a rude limestone building, now gone, that was one of the country’s earliest bastions of democracy.
Flashback to the time of the Revolutionary War. Kingston was already a well-established community that, in 1777, provided a brief harbor for the men charged with creating a new constitution for the nascent State of New York. Kingston briefly became the state’s capital when British troops invaded and took New York City. Those constitutional delegates who had fled New York City hammered out the new state’s constitution in the chilly winter confines of the modest limestone building that doubled as the county’s courthouse and jail. In July, the state’s first freely elected governor, George Clinton, took the oath of office in the courthouse.
These delegates – whose numbers included John Jay, later to become the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court – were forced to flee a second time before British general John Vaughn, together with his 1,600 troops, demonstrated his displeasure with the rebels by burning Kingston to the ground.
O’Neill typically likes to remind prospective jurors of the current building’s more recent place in history. It was there, in 1828, that an Ulster County woman whose slave name was Isabella sued to recover her son who had been sold to a white family in Alabama. Against all odds, the woman who renamed herself Sojourner Truth won the suit and became one of the country’s best-known Abolitionists and women’s rights activists.
O’Neill brings the full force of his interest in and knowledge of Kingston’s storied past to his courthouse presentations; he’s a member of both the Friends of Historic Kingston and Friends of the Senate House. And he’s more than a believer in the jury system because he has seen the effect that it has on the men and women who accept the responsibility to serve.
“Jury service is inconvenient and it’s difficult, but it’s not supposed to be easy,” he says. “But I’ve seen, time and again, how the experience of being a juror invariably leaves those who accept the challenge with a belief and a faith in our justice system.”