(this was originally thought of as a speech for the Highland Lakes Toastmasters Club on March 2, 2010 — more on that below)
It’s the day after election day for the party primaries in Texas and hopefully everyone got out to vote for the candidate of their choice. With early voting available it has become even easier to vote. What was your most important vote yesterday?
Voting is at the heart of this representative republic of ours. From the day people escaped the King of England and the fiefdoms that made virtual slaves of most, voting has been important, and fundamental, to this nation. The Continental Congress and eventually the constitutional convention adopted a constitution by the process of … voting. The document was then ratified by the original members of the union, state by state, ratified by voting. See the timeline here. What could possibly be your most important vote? It’s not what you think.
For two centuries and more following that time, citizens in cities, counties, states and the nation have been voting for legislative representatives, for the executive branch from mayors to governors to the president and, at least in Texas, for judges. Countless elections are held each year casting millions of votes. What is your most important vote? It may not be what you think it is.
We elect legislators who write the laws, the executive who administers the laws and the judges who interpret the laws. Laws are important, thus your vote is important. Law are important, indeed essential, in a civilized society for it is through those laws that a civilized society regulates the interaction between and among the people. In uncivilized societies all you need is the biggest club, and when a nation-state is uncivilized (e.g. Nazi Germany) all you need is the biggest army. But in a civilized society you must have laws to define how we deal, one with the other.
Our fighting men and women have fought and died all over the world defending our freedom and, at it’s core, our right to vote. And all over the world there are people fighting even as I write this article to try to gain basic freedoms and, in particular, the right to vote. Voting is not only a right but truly is a privilege.
How you vote has an impact on how, and when, and to what extent the laws of our nation impact you, and me, and all of our neighbors. What then might be your most important vote? It almost certainly is not what you think it is.
Laws do regulate our relationships, one with the other. Whether it’s a contract matter, a marriage or divorce, the making of a Will or the probating of one, the resolution of a business dispute or a fenceline controversy, or perhaps obtaining justice for a crime perpetrated upon us, laws have a direct and immediate impact on our lives.
But when one of those matters of societal regulation goes awry, the law means nothing unless and until the matter gets into court for resolution. At a moment in time at the end of a trial there is a coalescing of all three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — creating a pinnacle of power that becomes vested solely in active participants in the administration of justice: the jury.
That jury hears evidence, gets instructed by the judge on the applicable law, then deliberates and ultimately: votes. What then might indeed be your most important vote? It’s the one as a member of a jury, an active participant in the administration of justice. That collective vote resulting in a jury verdict can have impact far beyond the immediate litigants. It can in fact come to have nationwide impact. Surely, such a vote or even the potential for such impactful vote is your most important vote.
The jury who sentences a defendant to “X” years for “Y” crime has just set the standard for the plea bargaining process between the District Attorney and defense lawyers for years to come. The jury who determines for the first time that a particular act was negligence sets a standard that governs future similar cases. Whenever a jury assesses a large punitive damage award against a defendant for acting in a malicious manner it will have sent a message deterring that defendant from similar actions in the future. And when even large corporations suffer large damage awards, regular or punitive, that can change not only their behavior but that of an entire industry.
Think of the Ford Pintos and their exploding gas tanks, the Corvair that had a propensity to roll over, or the many suits regarding tobacco or asbestos. Entire industries have modified behaviors, policies and products: all in the face of the votes of jurors.
Certainly, your vote as a juror may well be the most important vote of your career as a responsible citizen. Don’t squander that privilege the next time you get a jury summons. Step up, become an active participant in the administration of justice, and cast your most important vote.
I said this was “thought of” as a speech idea … I did a real quick jot of basic notes two weeks ago, then got tied up in a trial out of town for seven days and, sliding into town last night just prior to the Toastmasters meeting, had to do the speech in substantially an extemporaneous fashion. With some trepidation, I recorded mine along with the other speeches, and mine is here: