Have you ever done jury duty? Or at least been summoned for the possibility?
I spent a couple of days this week at our county courthouse. Here’s how jury selection works, at least in Northern California.
- You receive a notice in the mail: “Call on this date to find if you have to come to the courthouse for possible service.” You do so, along with unknown numbers of other people. You may get excused.
- If you are called, you show up at the courthouse in the morning, along with 200 other people, and wait to see if you’ll be needed. You may get excused.
- If you are called, you go into a courtroom, with 30 other people. Jury selection begins, in which the attorneys attempt to seat a panel of 12 jurors, via the process known as voir dire. Attorneys question potential jurors to determine whether to excuse the candidates for cause, use a peremptory challenge, or accept them onto the jury. You may get excused.
For anyone with a Saturday in May waiting outside your door, we’ll cut to the chase. I was challenged, and excused.
But not without some observations.
Courthouses Are The Great Equalizer
The last time I had been in a courthouse was during my divorce proceedings. Oh how painful that was. And how little privilege mattered. We are all bare in the courthouse, accused, dissolving, petitioning for succor. Paint scuffs don’t discriminate.
People Do Their Jobs With Enthusiasm, Sometimes Too Much
Despite the, how else can I put this, human suffering that they witness, courthouse employees in my neck of their woods seem to like their jobs. The security guard bellowed happily, “Belts off! Cellphones, bags, keys, off!” The cafe cook made me an omelet with ripe avocado, even though breakfast was done. The clerk who spoke to the ~200 assembled in the basement juror room chattered like a late night TV host. In fact, she was so enthusiastic that I wanted to tell her to substitute speed for pep. But I didn’t.
People Are Unnecessarily Rude
Another woman did. Spoke up right in the middle of our clerk’s speech and said, “PLEASE! Can you just call upstairs and find out if we are needed? THEN you can chat with everyone?? I understood her impulse but not the action. The world is uncivil often enough for good reason. What harm did the extra 15 minutes do if it allowed someone to enjoy their life’s work? Not to get all self-righteous, but surely the system of justice warrants patience?
Many People Don’t Speak English In America
I also noticed how many people who are citizens of America can’t speak English well enough to participate in our civic rites. I am not of the belief that people should be forced to learn their host country’s language, or that said countries should stop supporting diverse immigrant populations. But I find it hard to imagine how it must feel, living in a country where you can’t understand the president, the police, or even many of the songs. I think it’s both the strength and weakness of America that singular cultures can persist in isolation.
I also wonder how people parent when their children speak a different language, hear a different narrative altogether? How do they explain the rules? The context? Maybe in my next life I will find out.
The Value Of Unplugging
Cellphones didn’t work in the basement where we waited to be called for potential service. I had to sit, and listen. And look around. I believe the Internet is largely a force for good, and in any case there is no turning back, but never underestimate the value of living in your body and perceiving the immediate and precious world. Noticing context.
The Curse And Blessing Of An Internal Monologue
In the end, though, I think for most of us the internal monologue remains our most compelling experience. Certainly it’s true for me. Because it’s so delicious, we have to try our absolute hardest to hear it clearly. Hard to distance yourself from yourself, but necessary sometimes. Often in the same moment when you have to be most present.
I was in the second round of those chosen for voir dire. So during the first round I listened to the attorney questions and thought about what I’d say if questioned. Good thing I don’t yet talk to myself out loud. Warning, middle-aged lady muttering to herself in the courtroom!
Then they called me up.
I could tell that the case centered around police rough-handling, and whether it had been required or gratuitous. The defendant, Hispanic, was accused of resisting police. The voir dire sought to determine our bias for or against law enforcement, and by implication our beliefs about de facto racisim in America. I could see that it was going to come down to whether you believed the policeman or the guy, sitting with his balding head and anxious eyes, at the table.
Asked repeatedly, by both sides, whether I could judge impartially, I said “Yes.” The prosecution excused me anyway.
Our System Is Not Half Bad
The prosecution was probably right. While I am one of the most logical people I know, what logic reveals is that decisions often have to be made on feelings. Had the logic, the evidence, made a clear case one way or the other I would have been able to put my biases aside. Would have had to, it’s the law.
But without a clear answer, in a case of He Said He Said, I’d have advocated for the decision that caused the least harm. And I believe the defendant would have suffered most from a faulty decision. Good job, Mademoiselle Prosecutor.
Blue And Red
To me that’s the core of our current uncivil politics. I believe America is so stubbornly split into Red and Blue because there’s no clear answer to most of our large questions. Without clear answer, we fall back on feelings. Some of us feel that the greatest societal risk is Harm to The Weak, some of us fear Harm from The Other.
I’m a big fan of the American justice system in general. And yet, as all systems do, it will fail and we’ll revert to our internal monologues. Which is why we hope people pay attention to their immediate precious world, and with any luck, do their jobs with enthusiasm. Job in the broad sense. All the way to civic if we can.
I wonder how it turned out.
Have a good weekend.
Above, a view from the 8th floor of the courthouse, and my fingers. The personal superimposed on the broad, in case I have been at all obscure so far.