A couple of weeks ago I received a letter summoning me to jury duty. I looked at it askance partly because I have one bad eye, partly because when I first lived in Queens in the early 2000s I ignored several of these, so I’ve been afraid of getting arrested for contempt of court ever since.
But now I’m a middle-aged man with a real job, a real wife, a real house, an almost real car, and I’m really trying to be responsible, so I resigned myself to attend. Part of me was convinced that the lawyers would immediately rule me out for my conspicuous sensitivity to pluralism. If my glasses and hyphenated multi-ethnic names weren’t enough, the ACLU bumper sticker on the back of my Kindle would get the message across.
I was annoyed because they asked me to show up at the Jamaica courthouse instead of the much closer courthouse in Long Island City. The first thing I saw when I finally arrived was a line curling around the block. I sincerely thought they were lining up for the bagel cart in front of the courthouse, but that was probably because I hadn’t eaten breakfast.
I got in the line and noticed that people with canes were being let in without having to wait. I made a mental note in case I had to return. Once we made it through the metal detector I saw what those people with canes were in such a hurry for: We were led to a huge auditorium with two blaring large-screen TVs. We were treated to the end of one of those Good Morning America/Today/This Morning monstrosities, followed by something called Kelly & Michael which featured two hosts unmistakably high on methamphetamine (trust me, I know what I’m talking about, I went to college in Texas). Mercifully, the television was turned off before the hosts started accusing each other of stealing the other one’s drugs.
A woman behind a lectern asked that we move to the same side of the room, scoot over to any empty seat to the right of us, and turn off the ringers on our cell phones. A surprising number of my fellow potential jurors couldn’t follow these simple instructions—not a comforting thought. We were then told to fill out the summons form they had mailed us. “In the part that says ‘name’, you have to fill out your name…” lectern lady said. These, my friends, are the people who decide whether you walk or serve time.
Then again I shouldn’t feel superior. I didn’t have a pen with me, even though the summons clearly stated that we should bring one. A kind person on my row passed one to me. My heart overflowed with gratefulness. Unfortunately, she felt that this made it okay to talk to me. I set her straight with my exaggerated “I’m paying attention to what the woman behind the lectern is saying” act.
The lectern woman introduced a 94-year old retired judge. We were made to rise, and he immediately told us to be seated. This could have been fun if they had kept at it, but instead he informed us that he would read from a paper that he always read to potential jurors. He began by saying that he was going to read the title, which he proceeded to do; it was something along the lines of “Some statements to potential jurors.” Then he read the paper. He concluded by saying that he had concluded reading the paper. As amusing as I found the self-referentiality of his performance, it made me glad that the night before I had voted against the proposal to raise the judiciary retirement age.
Presently they started calling names, and I hoped that they would hurry up and call the name of the woman who kindly gave me her pen so I wouldn’t have to talk to her again. First they called Manuel Perez and two men rose. I thought it would be wonderful if they both served in the same case, preferably one about identity theft. Then they called the pen lady’s name, followed by mine. Considering that there were about 300 people in the room and we happened to sit on the same row purely by chance, this was quite a coincidence. Or a conspiracy? We were led to a room to be evaluated by the defense and the prosecution. I made sure to sit away from pen lady. When we got there, though, I felt a pang of guilt: We were given another form to fill out.
The defense lawyer proceeded to give us a rough outline of the case. Every so often the prosecutor would ask him to step out of the room to speak in private, and we would hear them shout at each other. Then they would return and act like best pals. We were being reviewed for a personal injury case in which the guilt had already been established; the jury’s job would be to decide the extent of the damages. We were asked if we, or anyone close to us, had suffered back injuries or had been involved in a lawsuit. Eezy-peezy, I thought. My wife had suffered serious back injuries in a car accident in her youth, and my parents had sued an insurance company in the past. I started planning the rest of my day.
We were excused for our lunch break, which I used to explore Jamaica. From what I discovered, the neighborhood is like Versailles on bath salts: lots of candy-colored pseudo-Louis XIV furniture stores and establishments that buy gold. Most impressive was the man on crutches who stood on the sidewalk loudly barking like a dog. I hurried back to the courthouse before I was run over by an aristocrat’s carriage.
The lawyers began their winnowing, and we had to hear them explain the same point over and over: This isn’t about your opinion; it’s about the law. Then they interviewed us in groups of six, which I assume has something to do with the Bible. Pen lady told the lawyers that her husband was a truck driver and brazenly admitted that she was biased towards truck drivers. She was duly dismissed, which allowed me to relax a little—I had worried that by some fluke the judge would end up marrying us and I would be stuck with her for life. A few other people were dismissed for their connections to the health industry. When they got to me I proudly disclosed what I thought was my winning hand, but neither of the lawyers seemed concerned. I wonder if barking would have helped.
The lawyers continued to ask whether we would be able to be objective (though they never used the word, presumably because we all looked like idiots who get it confused with subjective*). Almost every person answered with an air of self-importance that they “would have to look at the facts,” or that “they couldn’t make a decision without seeing the facts,” and similar variations. WHAT THE HELL DID THEY THINK WOULD HAPPEN AT THE TRIAL? Did they think that a sexy agent would try to seduce them into ruling for the wrong person? Did they expect one of the lawyers to hand them a blank check with a wink and a slap on the back? When the question got to me I answered loudly: “I think I can be objective about this.” Then I mumbled to myself “provided the claim is supported by the facts.” I was told that I was selected to serve.
The second day they made us wait in the hallway while they put a new group of people through the same process. Hours later we were told we had to return the following week for the trial. I don’t understand why we had to wait so long for this, but at least I learned a couple of things: I learned why restaurants have those signs that say “Staff must wash their hands after using bathroom”—I saw a lawyer take a pee and leave without even pretending to rinse. I also learned that lawyers are not allowed to greet anyone in the jury, lest they seem to be trying to influence them. For that, I was grateful. God forbid I would ever have to shake one of these guys’ hands.