I had my first brush with civic responsibility.
I had thought, upon becoming disabled, that I certainly would never actually serve on jury duty. I require four liters of oxygen per minute. I also have an ileostomy. Both of those factors would require that I take multiple breaks during the course of proceedings to change O2 tanks (since my insurance will not pay for a portable air concentrator) and empty my ileostomy pouch when necessary. (I find I miss my colon most for its five to six feet of additional waste storage space.)
Yet, what I had failed to into account was the nature of bureaucracy. Naturally, the Enotah Judicial Circuit of Georgia is not exempted from this. They must choose perspective jurors from those who have gotten a driver’s license or received mail at an address in the counties comprising the district. This list of people is provided to them by the State of Georgia. The judge, who proved quite pleasant, in commenting about those not responding when their names were called during roll call *, informed us of this, adding that, on one occasion, they had a fellow listed for jury duty from the nineteenth century!
People are strange when you’re a stranger.
When I arrived at the courthouse and had gone through the security checkpoint, I was ushered into a room big enough to accommodate the pool of people who were also selected for jury duty. It looked like a generic conference room with about a 200-seat capacity. A nicely dressed man in a suit was wearing a badge. He was stationed by the door through which we had entered the room. It looked like he had some kind of list in his hand. Was it the list of the people who were supposed to be present? Obviously, I wouldn’t know.
Now, I happen to be an avid “people watcher.” Some people watch birds or cat videos. I find people to be more entertaining. It is always interesting to see how complete strangers interact. I took a seat on the end of an aisle since my aforementioned health concerns might have necessitated a quick exit. I pretended to be jotting ideas in my notebook I had brought with me. In reality, I was taking everything in.
Most of the people talking loud enough for me to hear were the Appalachian tribal folk who, in demonstration to those of us lacking the same pedigree, talked in a manner highlighting their permanence in the region, highlighting their familial connections going back to the time when their ancestors drove out the Cherokee. I am exaggerating, of course. They mostly talked about their kids. Or, they talked about “ol’ so-and-so” who was a mutual acquaintance. “Ol’ so-and-so” was also sometimes a mutual acquaintance of one of their kids.
Segregation was likewise alive and well in the juror selection waiting room. No, I don’t mean that those with more melanin were made to sit in the back of the room. People gravitated toward their own demographic. Younger people looked for younger people. Seasoned citizens looked for others in the geriatric set. Those of us middle aged also bunched up in the same general area. And those poor souls that arrived late? Those tardy perspective jurors were forced to comingle with those with whom they evidently had nothing in common, since they would have likely not chosen to sit by them if given a choice. (Some of those guys looked like they wish they had a can of disinfectant spray? Or was it bug spray that they wanted?)
In all honesty, however, I appear to be in a demographic all of my own. Really, this is true wherever I go, not just courthouses. Never do people volunteer to sit beside me. It might be because I am overweight and have adopted mutton chops as my beard style of choice. I can understand if others think, “This guy is a freak.” The more accurate adjective, though, would be “unique.” Maybe my compatriots thought that my scribbling upon a steno pad meant that I was not to be disturbed. I have to consider, though, that, since I have experienced this so much, I really may be repugnant. (Is it time to change deodorants?) Regardless of the reason, I just smile at people since that is what my mother taught me to do. Smiling produces endorphins too. And those endorphins keep me from becoming depressed about the unintended cruelty of others.
Just a quick note to the ladies out there. I do want you to have a healthy self-esteem. Really, I do. Even so, I won’t fall madly in love with you if you show me the courtesy of returning my smile or even sitting on the same row as me. Thus, I think you need to realize that just because you are beautiful doesn’t mean that every poor schmo out there is going to hit on you should you offer the milk of human kindness. Just some schmoes will do that. Not me. I promise. Remember that I am the fat guy with mutton chops. So, please, just say, “Hello.”
Being a good citizen can be…intimidating.
Once our wait was over, and the judge entered the room, we all sprang to our feet, nearly in unison, as the bailiff commanded, “All rise.” I think that finally seeing the judge made me realize that what I was a part of was something that was serious. This was not just some “annoying” obligation that one performs as a blessed citizen of this democratic republic. The presence of that judge makes you understand that what follows will potentially change some person’s life. Ideally, the guilty will be punished and the innocent are freed. Victims will receive justice. You seem to intuit this when you see the judge.
The judge stated that we would get the day off to a good start and, then, told us to join him in the pledge of allegiance. I cannot recall the last occasion upon which I said the pledge of allegiance. It was likely when I was in college. (We would say the pledge of allegiance before our devotional service in chapel. I won’t bore you with the details of how many years ago that happened to be.) It is interesting that no one in that room chose to take a knee. I don’t know if that was because there were people in the courthouse with guns or because the national anthem wasn’t playing. I digress. Since the judge instructed us to say the pledge, we knew we should say the pledge.
Ultimately, Lady Justice smiled upon me.
I had been contemplating how I would broach the impact of my medical condition upon the proceedings with the judge. He had to have noticed me. No, I am not referencing my mutton chops again. It is, rather, because I was the only guy sitting next to a rolling metal cylinder with a translucent hose connected to it. The other end of that hose ran up around my ears and was literally sticking in my nose. In looking at all of the sea of faces, I am pretty sure that my round one must have stuck out.
The judge began talking about how the Enotah Judicial Circuit worked. I had an inkling of where he was going. At least, I hoped I was correct. A few words later and I found myself pleased by my prognosticative prowess. As it turns out, some unspoken variable had caused the trial that they had thought would take place that day to be cancelled. The judge thanked us for doing our civic duty and told us that we were freed from service for the quarter. He then said that “the check would be in the mail.”
America…what a country!
Shortly after my initial arrival, I recalled some of the folks complaining about missing work on that day because of jury duty. One said that he did not mind serving on jury duty, but he certainly preferred not to. Thus, he was hoping that only a few of those summoned, presuming they were Georgians living in the twenty-first century, that is, would choose to skip out on jury duty. I suppose that it is a common sentiment. It is likely why jury duty comes with the promise of at least a small sum of cash. Plus, the court knows that they are intruding upon a private citizen’s livelihood when making him or her miss work in order to serve as a juror.
Were it not for man’s dark nature, I imagine people would be crawling over each other in order to be able to do something so important. Where else are you guaranteed a jury of your peers? I have watched cases from countries overseas before. I particularly recall a famous case involving an American that was heard in the Italian judicial system. Please do not misunderstand. I am not trying to be down on the Italians. They have a system that they obviously feel works for them. Even so, it was a tribunal of judges. There was no jury. One commentator remarked that the trial was, in some regards, irrelevant. He (or she–I cannot recall) stated that the judges could have already made up their minds about the defendant’s guilt or innocence before entering room. The trial was simply a formality. Thus ,they could have sat there and picked belly button lint while the defendant’s lawyer vainly tried to prove his client’s innocence.
At least in America, when it is something above the level of a Judge Judy, you have your case evaluated by twelve people living in your own community. Chances are they share your values. They might even like the same music or own a similar plaid shirt. Though true that lawyers for the prosecution and defense get to pick who constitutes that twelve from a pool of 100+ prospective jurors, a plaintiff or defendant can rest assured that the best attempt will be made to find the truth and bring about justice. If nothing else, there is that hope. It is a hope that exists in few other countries. The judge, for all of his authority, is basically just there to referee the lawyers and hand out the final sentence if a guilty verdict is reached. In a sense, then, the jury has the greater authority in determining guilt or innocence.
And that is awesome.
If summoned again, I still do not know if my health would enable me to serve. I do not know if my worldview would be appealing to the lawyer for the defense or persecution. However, I do know that I will not be so nervous about it. I also don’t think that I will complain. I think, rather, I will be filled with a sense of pride. Note that I cannot say that I will not be intimidated. There is just something about standing in the presence of even a congenial person in black. (After all, he can get you thrown in the jail with just a word and strike of his gavel.) I don’t care if that sounds old fashioned or makes me sound like a ‘Murican to some. Just as with the pledge of allegiance, being a juror is something that can certainly invoke civic pride. I am thankful I know this now.
*= Dodging jury duty will be punished. That is why the roll is called. Depending on the jurisdiction, a person can expect to be fined or even imprisoned. Essentially, a bench warrant is issued and a policeman will nab the jury dodger in a traffic stop. In Georgia, you might get to spend a night or two in jail for skipping out on jury duty without a valid excuse. As jury pools grow smaller, such punitive measures (as well as the aforementioned promise of a reward) become necessary to incentivize service.