The irony! My very own jury box chair. It’s empty and it will remain empty.

jury chair

I’m guessing this jury box chair was constructed in 1884, when a certain town in Nebraska was well on its way to embracing law and order. In favor of something more modern, the chairs were given away in the 1950s. My 191 million year old neighbor lady in Transylvania county got hold of one back then, and it has now come my way as that property is also being sold along with that of my other neighbors. The chair needs lots of dowel and expanding wood-glue work on it, but it’s a good solid chair.

The irony, of course, is that I am called to jury duty on superior/criminal court here in the district of far Western North Carolina. Because of arguments I’ve laid out previously, I cannot sit on a jury. The judge has twice granted me reprieve for the North Carolina Supreme Court case law that I’ve cited. I’m thinking that his only real politically acceptable option is to continue giving me a reprieve every six months, or better, give me a third reprieve without making this permanent, but nevertheless having my name quietly removed from the list of jury pool candidates.

The way the Supreme Court wrote their decision, if the judge makes my reprieve permanent, all candidates for a jury pool will have a viable excuse and the viability of the court itself will be sunk. That’s unacceptable of course. We do need a court system, broken as it is. The decision rightly said that the State cannot decide what a religious minister is as different from a religious member of whatever group, congregation, church. The court stated that, therefore, a reprieve for a minister must be given to any congregant.

The conflict of interest I have is that as a Catholic priest, I cannot break the Seal of Confession to the point that I cannot say if someone went to Confession or not. Imagine that in jury selection the clerk of court asks us to turn to the plaintiffs and defendants and say if we know any of them.

I cannot say that, yes, I know whoever. The next question will regard how it is that I know them, and I will reply that I cannot say that, at which point I will be cited for criminal contempt of court. It is known that a priest has a privileged forum guaranteed by the first amendment to the Constitution, a forum, the confessional, in which someone might offer a confession say, for murder, a confession given with full expectation of confidentiality unto death, a confession that is sincere, voluntary, given without pressure, with utter sincerity, baring one’s soul, a true confession. It’s a fair assumption that if I refuse to speak to my knowledge of the person that I know something about them by way of the confessional. Pretty much everything comes to a priest, who might get the story from the one who committed the crime, from the one who is taking the fall for the crime, from the friends and relatives and witnesses of both sides of whatever incident. That a priest or any minister would go to jail for such a reason would not fill the newspapers, but people would immediately conjecture that it was a confession I heard and that, therefore, the person is guilty. The confession might have been, however, that he is taking a fall for a loved one.

I cannot say that, no, I do not know whoever. The problem is that Catholic priests hear confessions with people having the option to speak from behind a screen. I don’t know if I do not know any of those involved, but will only find out when the case plays out in court. And then what? Do I recuse myself? For what reason? That I heard someone’s confession, thus tampering with the jury? I mean, it would be obvious what it was that I heard in confession. Not only would I be revealing a confession, thus getting myself excommunicated, but I would also be guilty of criminal jury tampering and be sent with that felony conviction to the state penitentiary.

Also, at that point, I would no longer be a juror, but rather a witness to a confession to the crime being judged. Law enforcement would want to interrogate me for all the details that might tie up some loose threads, etc. The judge will want to hear the whole story. If I refused to be a witness I would also be committing the crime of contempt. The same North Carolina Supreme Court says that the State has compelling interest to hear a witness, more compelling than the first amendment of U.S. Constitution. It’s a poorly written law and it needs to be refined. But I don’t want to be the guinea pig for that. I hope the judge just gives me another reprieve and then forgets me.

By the way: The clerk of court, a really nice guy whom the whole world respects, suggested I make a deal with the judge in case of an adverse decision against my wanting to enjoy my Constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. He suggested that I beg the court’s clemency in favor of my sitting on a jury for non-criminal court, you know, for only civil matters of property disputes and disputes over last wills and testaments, that kind of thing. No, I said, all that can come to confession as well. Of course it can. For instance, did anyone every get impatient or angry over someone continuously moving the property line markers? Did anyone ever dispute a will? Ever? It doesn’t matter how small the matter is. I will not betray a confession or put myself in a position in which I will eventually, surely sooner than latter, be put in a position where I cannot but reveal a confession even by my silence. Get it?

If I’m convicted of criminal contempt… I will immediately make a move to appeal, but also to obtain an unconditional pardon from the Governor of North Carolina. For the former, I would surely have the help of any number of pro bono Constitutional attorneys. There are many. For the latter, I would attempt to get together a list of supporters, including the Catholic bishops of North Carolina, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (not that far from me), the local Ministerium, etc. If one minister is thrown in jail for the free exercise of religion, all are at risk. I would hope all non-Catholic ministers would say on that day, “I am Catholic,” as a kind of Christianized, “Je suis Charlie.”

Have other ministers/priests/bishops served on juries? Sure. But this has been more rare and by and large only recently. Most all states exempted clergy from jury duty for good reason. Only recently has the trend gone the other way, so that now there are almost no states offering an exemption. Massachusetts, a “catholic” state, is rather abrupt, in-your-face about this change. Because this has only been a recent change in state law, clergy have only rarely served on juries. They haven’t thought this through. I’m guessing that I’m pretty much the first to make a stink about it. C’est la vie?

“Getting out of jury duty…” Some have remarked that I’m just trying to get out of the hassle of doing jury duty. That “hassle” bit is their own unworthy attitude toward this service of justice and one’s neighbor. I’m totally willing to serve, and am laying my own well being on the line to not serve for the reasons stated above. Also, I could not serve on a capital case, for which there is a quite a list in North Carolina. I don’t think capital punishment is necessary with the by and large secure prisons we have today. Few prisoners have Shawshank capabilities.

6 Comments

Filed under Confession, Jury Duty, Priesthood, Vocations

6 responses to “The irony! My very own jury box chair. It’s empty and it will remain empty.

  1. Monica Harris

    ç’est la vie de Père Byers!

  2. Mrs Donna Kaup

    This chair came out of the court house in Denver, Colorado in the 1940’s or so when they did a remodel. It is solid wood! Very comfortable too. It indeed dates back many, many years.

  3. What does NC do nowadays in the case of other people in formally recognized positions of confidentiality, such as psychologists?

  4. Father George David Byers

    Don’t know. In this case, case law deals with a minister.

  5. Father George David Byers

    @ Mrs Donna Kaup – Oops! Put that back one more year then: 1883!

  6. WOW….Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. I’m sorry for your being put in this position. I NEVER realized, previously, how ‘on the spot’ priests find themselves. Pretty scary, too. You could wind up in prison just for loving the Lord. Oh my!

    I hope it works out for you, Fr. George. God bless and protect you.

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