Jury duty. Consider the sound of those noble words. Under the law every adult citizen in good standing has the responsibility, and will probably have the opportunity to serve as a member of a jury. The obligation to participate in our nation’s judicial system is one of the great privileges of our free republic. And last week I was invited to jury duty — to take my place in the ranks of genuine civic service – to stand as a representative for truth, justice, and the American way.
Yes, yes, I know. I tried like the dickens to get out of it, but no luck! The evening before my appearance date I crossed my fingers and called the jury office hot line, hoping against hope that my group number wouldn’t be called in. Another disappointment.
So, next morning, after confirming that I had a substitute for work, I grabbed a good book to occupy my spare time, and drove to the Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix. The system had provided me with a map. Much to my delight they had also arranged for free parking, and a shuttle bus to carry all juror candidates several blocks to the courthouse. To say the least, we were getting the royal treatment.
Thus began my day, which included orientation, comfortable seating, and a nifty badge to identify my unique status as a potential participant in the machinery of justice. There were also plenty of television screens playing reruns of “Days of Our Lives” for us to watch while we waited for our group numbers to be called. However, to my chagrin there were no refreshments, party games, or ice-breaking activities to help us get acquainted with boat loads of other jurors. And contrary to what I’d been told by satisfied patrons of the past, there was no buffet lunch provided. (I was apparently misinformed as part of a cruel deception.)
But of course, such amenities are not important. I was there to offer my heart and soul to the process – to volunteer to become one of society’s “twelve men, good and true.” A short explanation of that fabled description of the jury is momentarily appropriate.
According to sources:
“When this phrase was coined, in the early 17th century, ‘good’ implied distinguished rank or valour. These days people aren’t required to be valiant or of high rank in order to be part of a jury.”
This was obviously true, since I was there. I continue,
“Jurors are no longer required to be men, as women have been called for jury duty in both the UK and USA since around 1920.”
Well, enough fascinating history. There were literally hundreds of us (men and women) anxiously waiting for our “name to be drawn”, so to speak. When my group number was announced, there was a mass exhilaration scattered throughout the huge room, as if 60 people had won a judicial lottery. (Well, kind of.) We were assigned numbers and arranged in lines. (I was number 53, and proud of it.) And while I got acquainted with numbers 52 and 54, the officers of the court prepared to meet the day’s key witnesses – us. The real process of elimination was about to begin.
We were finally admitted into the courtroom to sit before the judge. Actually, he was very professional and very engaging. He cordially introduced himself, the bailiff, recorders, and other courtroom staff, and even the attorneys and their clients. (The atmosphere didn’t in the least resemble “Judge Judy” – which was not at all disappointing.) He then gave us an instructive summary of the case and a ‘heads-up’ that it was to be a long trial – scheduled through the end of the month. All in all, jury duty was turning out to be very educational.
As I began to look around me, another education began. Sixty potential jurors had gathered from the depth and breadth of Maricopa County. As I said, we didn’t have names. We were specifically assigned numbers, for convenience in the process. But individually, these 60 numbers constituted a fascinating cross section of America: men, women, old, young, rich, poor, well-dressed, casual, and every color of the rainbow. And after spending an hour in their company, and watching them talk and laugh and mingle – I realized I could probably call any one of them ‘friend’ (with a proper introduction). These were decent, good people who had come, albeit reluctantly, to do something decent and good – and important.
Paring down this nice bunch of individuals from a group of 60 candidates to a final jury of 12 became the immediate order of business. The judge’s amiable interrogation began with general questions to the group. These included particularly damning questions like “Is anyone here an attorney?” (Ouch!) But most questions were more harmless, such as, “Is anyone here a non-citizen?” “Has anyone here been convicted of a felony?” “Does anyone have a problem understanding English?” Other questions continued. “Are you employed by anyone assigned to this case?” “Are you related to anyone assigned to this case?” “Have you ever committed a violent crime against anyone assigned to this case?” One lady – number 27 — seemed to qualify for every single exclusion, including having danced with a mailman, (which until then I had not realized was a federal crime). She was dismissed.
Finally, the judge asked the candidates if the length of the case would present a hardship to any of us. Several raised their hands with very reasonable considerations: demanding occupations, final exams, vacation reservations, or health problems. And then there was number 53. I pondered the merits of my personal concern, and finally raised my hand.
“Yes, number 53?” Asked the judge.
I cleared my throat. “I am fully aware that there are far more important things in the world than my wants and conveniences, particularly where justice for one man in a court of law is concerned. But I am a high school teacher. And the length of this trial will extend for the rest of the month. Having taught my students since September, I would be reluctant to miss these last few weeks and the end of the school year.”
“What and where do you teach? He asked.
“I teach seminary in Mesa,” I answered.
“Thank you,” he said. And the questioning moved on.
Within a short time we were instructed to take a break. When we were recalled a few minutes later, the judge read the numbers who were excused from jury duty, having fulfilled their obligation to the court. Lo and behold, number 53 was among them. I was actually, positively and completely surprised. And to be honest, a part of me was a little disappointed. Go figure.
Like many of us, I have, on occasion, become cynical with regards to the state of the nation. We are not in a spiritually and morally healthy condition. We cheat each other, we lie about each other, and we hurt each other – with monotonous regularity. And it seems sometimes as if the legal system is in many ways responsible for the cheating, the deception and the pain. We are a litigation-crazy society. We make a man an offender for a word. We call evil, good and good, evil. We rewrite the laws of civilized nations in favor of popular whim. And we work much of this magic through the courts. Smoke, mirrors, and new legality.
Little wonder many are losing faith in the justice system. But such an attitude of doubt and fear, gloom and doom is counterproductive – and misleading. This is particularly true in a nation where judges and juries have recorded far more triumphs than tragedies of justice throughout our history. And they continue to do so. No, the system is not perfect. Neither are we as individuals. But we keep trying.
Oh, I’m sure I’ll backslide into my cynical moments where corrupt courts and partisan judges will seem to be the greatest threat to American freedom. But then again, I will always have a picture in my mind of the good and conscientious people who I met on my one day of jury selection. The simple, decent, and caring men and women who serve as officers in the system and as jurors of our courts are still the foundation of a people’s government. And they may still be our best hope.
I almost wish I had been selected.