COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

The jury is out

The jury pool lounge at the Hall of Justice in San Diego is a fairly representative sample of the citizenry who live here. Several hundred of us were called as potential public servants recently.

The volume was unusually high, according to the administrators, largely due to a long-term case that was anticipated to take more than a month to adjudicate.

That meant the fall-out rate of jurors was going to be high, due to financial hardship caused by long court service away from our employment.

After the general instructions to prospective jurors for civil and criminal cases were completed, three current members of the San Diego grand jury took the microphone to recruit new members. Each year, the 19-person grand jury is reassembled from volunteer applicants who compete for appointment to a one-year commitment that pays $24 for six hours each day of work.

A grand jury is a standing body with investigative responsibilities related to oversight of public service agencies and entities. If you wish to allege malfeasance in city government, you would post a complaint with the grand jury, who would be accountable for a fair assessment and ultimately a verdict of culpability or innocence placed upon one or more accused public servants.

The San Diego grand jury members soliciting new appointees enumerated the eligibility criteria: resident of the city, able to serve for a year, agreeable to the duties assigned and possessed of “ordinary intelligence”.

This last criterion stunned me. If one assumes that “ordinary” means the most common definition of being “normal,” and “normal” derives from the most prevalent central tendency in a given population, then the eligibility criterion around mental facility was that the applicants should have average intelligence.

While the criterion did not specify how intelligence was to be measured, one could further assume that the Stanford-Binet methodology of measuring intelligence, first introduced in 1905, is intended.

That measurement is a quotient that divides the mental age (the average intellectual capabilities of a particular age) by the individual’s chronological age.

So if you are 10 years old but you can do mental gymnastics most 20 year olds could do, then you have an intelligence quotient (IQ) of 200. Not many of us on the planet are in this category, of course.

In fact, by definition, the single largest category in the demographic range of intelligence is the set of people whose intellectual age is that of their chronological age, yielding an IQ of 100.

In a normal distribution, or “bell curve,” the average value is equal to the value that occurs the most (the mode) and the value that exactly splits the distribution in half (the median).
Human populations closely exhibit normal distribution curves for any number of descriptive factors associated with the species.

So to be a member of a grand jury, responsible for the fates and futures of human beings in government -- either elected, appointed or hired -- one must have an IQ that is the best of the bottom half. Or the worst of the top half. Because the criterion stated for eligibility implicitly precludes people who are smarter than the average person.

What if you had an IQ of, say, 120, which would put you in the top 10 percent of the population? Studies have found a strong positive correlation between income level and IQ. Smarter people tend to make more money.

If the average per capita income equals the pay of the mythical average IQ employee, that would be about $50,000 per year. A person with an IQ of 120 could expect to earn $100,000 per year.

For a full time job, that’s roughly $50 per hour. Twelve times the rate meant to entice the grand jury volunteers to put their name in the hat.

So what person in the top 10 percent of intelligence, retired or not, would devote a year’s worth of their life in exchange for pay that’s a 10th of what they made when they were working for a living? Two kinds: altruists and power mongers.

Altruists are people who do things not for the money, but for how they feel about themselves during and after the acts of service. Power mongers are simply people who enjoy having the right and authority to make decisions that affect others.

I’ve met few true altruists. And even those I’ve known tend to be altruistic in specific areas, not all.

he only altruistic volunteers in public service that I personally know are volunteer board members for the homeowner’s association I belong to. And the motivation is actually as much self-service as it is community service.

Board members are owners in the building, so it’s often felt advantageous to be on the board that makes decisions which affect the current and future value of one’s significant real estate asset.

As I sat in the jury room for the day, listening for my name to be called or not, I ruminated on this subject. I concluded that grand jurors are most likely retirees or others no longer in the workforce, on a fixed income, used to be players in the great game of making a living, and want to feel more control over their world, but can’t reasonably get elected to any office.

And they’d likely be over 50-55 years old, about the age of the people whom they would be investigating.

That doesn’t sound like a recipe for objectivity, efficiency and motivation to excel beyond the stated parameters of the role.

The idea of an objective community committee to monitor the people who have their hand on the trough of public coffers is a good one.

But there’s got to be a better way of staffing the function so that diversity, competency and objectivity are indeed achieved in the process.



Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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