Can I Skip Jury Duty Because of Covid Fears?

I’ve been summoned for federal jury duty. I believe in jury service and see it as a civic responsibility. I was provided information about the two-week case in advance, as part of an effort to manage courthouse “traffic” during the pandemic, which allowed me to state, without having to go to the building for the initial rounds of jury selection, whether I could be objective. I believe I can be.

I was also asked to complete a questionnaire about whether concerns about Covid would affect my ability to serve. Cleaning, masking and distancing efforts were described. The yes/no question was something like, “Would your concerns about Covid interfere with your ability to focus on the trial?” At the time of my response, I felt uncertain and so answered “Yes,” because that was truer than “No,” and I provided an explanation. I stated that while the safety practices sounded reasonable, I didn’t know what it would be like for me in the courthouse or courtroom until I got there. I further explained that I have been very cautious throughout the pandemic and haven’t spent any time inside unfamiliar settings with unknown people since the lockdown, with the exception of limited trips to the grocery store and medical appointments. Except for the homes of vaccinated friends, I haven’t been inside a building that isn’t my home for more than 30 minutes at a time.

As I’ve continued to ponder this question, I realize that I am more and more uncomfortable with my possible exposure to the virus in this setting. The pandemic has changed my life dramatically. I have had groceries delivered more times than not since March 2020. I have not seen some friends for more than a year. I have not traveled to see my family in over two years. I have consistently and steadfastly adopted the mantra “What decision reduces my risk and increases my ease?” I’ve chosen not to socialize, visit, celebrate, mourn, keep appointments, have fun, travel, shop, play music, volunteer, in an effort to keep myself and others safe.

I want to serve my community by continuing to be healthy and safe and helping others to do the same. Yet the conflict of personal decision versus civic responsibility still lingers. What’s your take on this dilemma? Name Withheld

I am pretty confident that a federal court would follow all the federal health guidelines, and that — if you are up-to-date with vaccinations — your presence at the trial would present a very low risk of serious illness. The procedures you were told about sounded reasonable to you. And you commendably want to do your civic duty as a juror.

The point of the question, however, was to allow the court to decide whether the circumstances of the pandemic, even with these precautionary measures, would leave a prospective juror too distracted to attend properly to the trial. Your anxieties, whether reasonable or not, do raise this possibility. So your answer was the right one. The duty of jury service is one that you can discharge only if you are able to focus on the relevant proceedings. It would be wrong, of course, to pretend to be worried in order to evade jury duty. But though experts might deem your level of anxiety excessive, the self-sequestration you describe makes your sincerity hard to doubt.

I volunteer with an organization that provides services to homeless, low-income and food-insecure people. It is on the grounds of a church, which has a large and active membership and maintains a welcoming, open campus.

Recently, a staff member of my organization saw two adult volunteers having sex during the day, at a time when many volunteers and paid staff members — as well as church members and clergy — could easily have walked in on them. (These adults live in private homes, have cars and means.) The staff member did nothing to reprimand them but did share what had been witnessed with a number of other staff members who have been discussing this conduct among themselves and with volunteers.

Rumors of this relationship have disrupted the smooth functioning of our organization. A number of the regular volunteers are not showing up for their shifts, which is making things harder on those of us who do. When you are a volunteer, you expect to be appreciated. Right now, there isn’t much appreciation to go around.

Although I did not witness this act, I wanted to put an end to the gossip, so that I could continue to do my volunteer job and not jeopardize either the funding of the organization or the church. So I spoke to a senior official at the church and described the situation. My desire was not to have anyone lose their position, only to clear the air, stop the gossip and not upset any of the wealthy donors or organizations who contribute to the church and this organization. I was assured that the rumors would be investigated and resolved.

Should I have kept my mouth shut and let the rumor mill play itself out? Name Withheld

Let me start by stating the obvious: You should have sex only where you have a reasonable expectation that other people won’t have to witness it without their consent. Clearly, it would have been better had the staff member who walked in on this erring couple simply asked them not to do it again and refrained from spreading the word about their indelicacy. The circulation of gossip about the event — you speak of “rumor,” which suggests an uncertainty that’s inconsistent with your account — wasn’t likely to do much good.

It’s not entirely clear to me, however, why volunteers should stay away simply because two other volunteers misbehaved in this way. (Was it that they strongly disapproved of the conduct or were disheartened by the condoning of it?) Nor is it clear how a church investigation would resolve anything. Is the thought that if the couple were sanctioned by the church in some way, morale would be restored? Your action would have been justified if you had reason to be confident it would have the effect you intended. But I wonder whether whatever ails your organization is really confined to this incident. You indicate that its volunteers aren’t feeling appreciated. The natural inference is that managerial shortcomings have eroded the spirit of good will and community that fosters volunteerism. A couple of sinners on your team shouldn’t undercut the spirit of good work to which you have devoted yourselves.

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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