I receive a jury summons. In the past, I‘ve always claimed financial hardship by virtue of self-employment, and they have been content to leave me alone. But something about this notice feels different. Its use of the intimidating color red, the naming of an exact time and place for me to appear, the inquiring into my household expenses, the emphatically upper-case warning that ”PENALTIES, INCLUDING A POSSIBLE FINE OF UP TO $1,500.00, MAY BE IMPOSED“ for failure to respond — all this seems to say, Not this time, buddy.
Of course, I know there are good reasons to get with this program. I know that I am at bottom merely jealous of my not especially valuable time. I understand that my presence, perhaps particularly as a person who would rather not be there, helps keep the jury pool, like the gene pool, diverse and healthy. I dig that the People need protection from the Government, which is not always as Of, By or For the People as Mr. Lincoln maintained. According to the Code of Civil Procedures, ”jury service is an obligation of citizenship.“ But I do not like to be obligated. I am contrary that way. Duty — it’s an unpleasant word; it sounds scatological. And it so often comes attached to other unpleasant words, like patriotic. But voting is a patriotic duty, and they don‘t threaten you with PENALTIES, INCLUDING A POSSIBLE FINE OF UP TO $1,500.00, for staying home on Election Day. Selective nonparticipation is demonstrably the American way.
But the word on the street is that it is getting harder to avoid doing the time. It seems easier finally to go than not to, and in order not to have to deal with the system, I decide to deal with the system.
In the jury assembly room, which has the air of an aging airport lounge, there is a TV playing, which I take as kindly official acknowledgment of and recompense for our purgatorial status. Many have come prepared, in various ways, for the long day’s haul, with puzzles, portable video games, laptops, books. I myself have purchased especially for the occasion a copy of Erle Stanley Gardner‘s The Case of the Vagabond Virgin. Many people, the cashier told me, have the wrong idea about Perry Mason because of the TV show, but Gardner ”could write a plot.“
Roll is called. We’re back in high school. I‘m afraid my voice will crack when I answer ”Here.“
We are orientated. The day chugs along. On television, Judge Larry Joe is dispensing Texas Justice. Someone’s bull got loose and annoyed the neighbor, and the judge offers some personal insight: ”I had a bull that come up to my uncle bobbing his head looking for food,“ he drawls, ”and nearly broke his leg.“ The verdicts are swift and incisive and come two to the half-hour. Why not leave justice to the professionals?
Now I am ”on call,“ phoning the court twice a day to see if I have to return. Life goes on, but ever so slightly hobbled. It‘s like being under a kind of mild house arrest. The consciousness of the possibility of commitment persists as a low-level background hum.
A week into my service (we also serve who only phone and wait), I’m called back down to the courthouse, and dispatched to a courtroom for jury selection. The judge has a glass eye; he seems to be looking at you even when he isn‘t — an advantageous disability, possibly, for a man in his line of work. He tells a joke about Perry Mason — my man! — going to heaven, the punch line of which is that all the judges are in hell. The attorneys, who as if by cosmiccomic prearrangement are an Irishman and a Jew, likewise mock their trade, but this is transparently tactical: You can love us, because we hate us too.
Perry Mason has some interesting things to say about this point in the judicial process:
The clerk calls out the name of a prospective juror. That person gets up from his seat in the courtroom, walks up to take his place in the jury box. You have an opportunity to watch him for six or seven seconds. In those six or seven seconds you have to reach a snap judgment as to his character . . . [A]s a rule a man has steeled himself by the time you start questioning him so his appearance is more or less of a mask. He’s trying to convince you that he‘s intelligent and important . . . He’s trying to convince himself he‘s something of a judge.
I try to convince myself that I’m intelligent and important and something of a judge. No luck. I could be wrong is practically my mantra. I am ever apt to believe the last person who speaks: I see your point. And now I see your point. That another person‘s fate might lie even fractionally in my hands fills me with dread; I don’t want to judge, I don‘t, I don’t, I don‘t. But in any case, a jury is seated without my ever being questioned, and I return to the assembly room with the other few unchosen, somewhat relieved but also strangely ashamed. Not being picked for the team in a game I didn’t want to play in the first place — this is like being back at school.
Another week passes, and I continue a prisoner of the system, phoning in obediently, anxiously, for my semidiurnal personal verdict. I have finished The Case of the Vagabond Virgin — which never even goes to a jury, Perry having blown the whole business wide-open during the preliminary hearing — but I still can‘t work out exactly what happened, even when he lays it out plain to Paul and Della. Justice clearly is better off without me.
The night before the tenth, potentially last day of my servitude, I have a dream. I dream I’m back in court, but a very grand, Pink Floyd at Madison Square Garden sort of court. I‘m sitting in bleachers along with scores of fellow prospective jurors — next to Charlotte from Sex and the City, in fact, which is strange because I like Miranda best (the lawyer, interestingly enough). The judge, who is seated about 30 feet above the floor, is putting the voir dire on . . . a dog. And assigning him not to a jury but to a movie, an alpine adventure of the White Fang variety. ”You’ll be the star — you think you can handle that?“ he says, indicating by his tone that Fido can and will. I myself am sent to be an extra in something called The Teller. ”You‘ll be out of there in a day,“ says the bailiff encouragingly.
I wake and, at the appointed hour, make my final call. I am excused, by tape recording, and go whistling off to lunch, a free man.