I arrived to the county courthouse bright and early this morning, ready for my American Adventure: Jury Duty. These two words have evoked groans and pitying looks from every single person I know – but I was excited. I really wanted to do this thing, see democracy in action, sit in a room with strangers and answer personal questions and feel mildly embarrassed because you just know you’re going to see this person again, on a bus, or worse yet, in Safeway, that one time you are there at 1:30 a.m. buying a tube of K-Y and a pound of ground beef and one of those Starbucks frappuccino things that never taste as good in reality as they do in my memory, and yet I still buy them, why? Why do I waste my money?
Where was I? Ah. Yes. Jury duty.
The Marin County Civic Center is a beautiful building, at first glance. Frank Lloyd Wright designed it, and we all know how I feel about the Frank. Inside the Civic Center is another story. After a half-century, it’s falling apart, and county funds being what they are, the refurbishment comes piecemeal if at all. So it smells funky, like all government buildings do, that industrial soap mixed with strangers’ smell. It’s falling apart, we’re all falling apart, and propping ourselves up inside a beautiful structure we are supposed to decide the fate of other strangers by virtue of anonymity, animosity, whatever.
I’m here for the Learning Experience.
First I bring my jury summons to the plastic counter, wo-manned by two tired, sad people with tired, sad Christmas-themed cardigan sweaters and tired, sad gold-toned jingle bell earrings drooping from their tired, sad earlobes. I am bright and shiny and perky and happy and I am going to Uphold Justice. I give one of the women my jury summons. She scans it into the computer and hands it back to me and says in a tired, sad voice, “Sit down. It will be a while.”
Now, I am the first to admit that I am an impatient person. While others can bide their “a while” increment of time for fifteen, possibly twenty minutes, my “a while” is at maximum thirty seconds. I sit down with the best of intentions: work. I have brought work. To work on, to be productive while I wait. I open my book to work.
I shut my book. There are strangers, all about! They are doing Things! Like making out Christmas cards! (O, why didn’t I remember something clever like that?) Like looking at me! (Okay, pal, look any harder and I’m going to charge you.) Like staring into space, drooling ever so slightly! (Look at the way the sunlight hits her chin …)
Okay, so maybe I should try reading. I get the book open, and re-read half a page earlier (necessary, for Tolkien) and get caught up and into it and my name is called. So I hop up, gleefully ripping off my “juror’s badge” (read: tiny slip of paper from the jury summons) and march up to the counter. The badge is stamped in a tired and sad manner and a plastic badge-holder is thrown at me. I insert the tiny slip of paper into the plastic holder, attach it to my blouse, and we are off! On our way! Lining up on our way to the Courtroom! Where Justice Happens!
I really was thinking in exclamation points all day. Well, until I wore myself out. But we’re not there yet.
We file into the courtroom. It is partially circular and thus even groovier. I secretly smile, thinking of the Frank. I find a seat in back and there are people in uniforms and a court recorder and there are lawyers and even a defendant. It’s not at all like the movies but still, just far enough out of my normal realm of experience that I am excited. Bouncy, even.
For the first ten minutes.
I had no idea this whole thing was an audition. It is! The court secretary calls your name, you go up, sit in the juror’s box, and answer the judge’s question “will serving on a jury cause you to suffer unnecessary hardship?” If you say yes, you have to say why. If you say no, you are asked to fill in the blanks in the sheet in front of you, which is basically the first part of any credit application, with the obligatory “have you ever served on a jury before?” question tacked on.
Then the judge proceeds to ask some more questions. Some people are excused because of their answers, usually having to do with how they are related to lawyers or police officers or people who have experienced situations similar to the crime that is being prosecuted (in this case, domestic violence). Thus began my own internal cross-examination.
See, I really wanted to be on this jury, any jury really. I want to do something like this to learn about our justice system firsthand because I have very little patience or interest for reading about it. But justice waits for no ‘Sted, and the sudden-death overtime that was the series of “peremptory challenges” was indeed over before my name was called. I didn’t even get to answer any of the personal questions. Not that I’d have been selected; my stepmother worked at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence for many years, and I volunteered there as well. I think the public defender would have cut me right out.
After we are dismissed, I return my badge to the tired, sad clerks upstairs. Into the sunlight I walk, not looking back at the beautiful, dilapidated building. I do not think about the life that will or won’t change, that has or hasn’t already changed, or the million other lives hinged on moments, on “I don’t want to be here todays”. After all that walking, I do not feel disappointed about not being a part of it. Merely tired, and a little sad.