By Gregory Stuart Edwards
I tend to vote. I pretty much obey the law. I have thus far refrained from open insurrection against the government. Contrary to the fancies of a particularly obstinate IRS agent a couple of years back, I have always paid my taxes. And I was born in Iowa. So maybe I’m not a Great American, but I like to think I’m a Decent Enough American.
By and by, the State of New York determined to test this premise. A little more than a month ago, I received in the mail a pink perforated summons to report for jury duty at the Supreme Court in downtown Brooklyn. My friends reacted with great sympathy; I got a lot of “man, that sucks” and “lemme tell you how to get out of it.” But I, awash in civic virtue, and convinced of my essential decency, never once did entertain the preparation of a series of excuses and/or prejudices which would disqualify me from service. This was my duty as an American, dammit; I was no dodger.
I can recall a moment way back in 1991, when the country was busy cheering on Iraq War Part I, and there was some widespread consideration given to the prospect of reinstating the Draft. The subject somehow came up in my high school French class, and I remember my teacher suggesting that, should the Draft come back, John — the only other male in the class — would readily head to battle, whereas I would most likely flee to Canada. I took great offense to this notion — despite its implication that I was smart and John was a meat-head. Go to War? Of course I would go to war! I was a 17 year-old male, flush with testosterone, and my universe divided neatly into three distinct categories: boring stuff, stuff that gave me an erection, and stuff I wanted to blow up. Going to war promised to remove me from the first and provide me a great deal of the third, with the prospect of a great deal of the second upon my triumphant return from battle.
Seventeen years on, my carnal and destructive appetites have become a bit more manageable; however, I have discovered in adulthood an entirely new desire: the desire to Judge. With my many years of experience as a human being, I was anxious to display my abundant wisdom in rendering the most impartial and well-reasoned of verdicts. Not only was I not going to try to get out of jury duty, I told people, I was smugly certain that I was going to get picked to serve on a trial.
I will now tell you the Great Untold Secret of the American Judicial System: no sane person — NO ONE — actually wants to sit on a jury. In fact, were I asked to define the term “jury,” I would say, “a collection of citizens held against their will, and forced to arbitrate the problems of complete strangers.” This is not, however, to suggest that other individuals summoned to serve will expend the same amount of effort to get themselves disqualified. Some people receive full salary for time spent in the courthouse; others genuinely hate their jobs. And then there’s me: someone who both enjoys how he ordinarily spends his days, and receives no money whatever for time missed from work, yet for reasons of vanity concludes that he must serve.
In brief, my jury selection went like this: I showed up in court at 8:30am last Tuesday, sat in the Central Jury Room until noon, then got called in as part of a group of about 20 to a cramped “empaneling room.” Three lawyers had us fill out questionnaires, then we broke for lunch. When we returned, the attorneys questioned us all in turn as to our impartiality. The more savvy and ballsy of us either (a) said straight away that they could not be impartial, (b) claimed to have specific knowledge of the details of the case, or (b) pretended to not speak English. All strategies seemed equally effective. Two and a half hours of questions later, simply by dint of having not tried to get myself off the jury, I was sworn in as Juror #3. I was sent home, and told that the trial would start the next day.
The trial did not start the next day. Neither did it start Thursday. Nor Friday. We selected jurors were, however, required to report each day, and sit around doing nothing. Our group gradually gravitated to the so-called “lounge” area, so as to avoid the hoi polloi in the Central Jury Room. And the griping began. Griper-in-chief was a fifty-something woman who was the only person in our group to have served on a trial before, so she knew that we were in for a bunch of bullshit. Periodically, she would bring our group complaints (e.g., “we’ve just been sitting here for days; no one has told us anything; we’re all very angry”) to the Empaneling Clerk, who would laugh in her face, and say that we were basically screwed: We were on a trial involving the City of New York, and the City liked to drag these cases out.
On one of these occasions, the Clerk let loose something else. The Griper was explaining again why it was impossible for her to be on this trial (something to do with her vacation days), and he replied, “Look, the only person who can get you off this trial now is the judge, and he’s probably not going to do it for that reason.”
Ah-ha… So, it was still technically possible to get off this case. You just needed to convince the judge. I went home that evening and googled information about serving on a jury. One page that came up explained that a juror can ask the bailiff to present the judge with a written note, requesting an audience. But what would the note say? Obviously, a mere explanation that jury duty was bad for me wasn’t enough. I would need to explain why me being on the jury was bad for the case: I would need to declare in open court that I could not be impartial, that I was not even a Half-Decent American.
But was this actually true? I reasoned thusly: As a freelancer, being on this case meant both lost wages, and potential endangerment of future earnings. Given that this was a civil case, with a plaintiff seeking financial compensation, my determination of a reward would be influenced by the fact that it would have come at my own expense, so to speak. I don’t know and will never know if this would have been true; I do know that I had started using the name of the plaintiff as a curse word.
Monday morning, my jury was finally moved upstairs to our official trial jury waiting room. I had come in with a printed letter to the judge, which I gave to the Court Officer. About 15 minutes later, he brought me in alone to the courtroom.
I walked in through the jury door, and nervously stood in the box. I know there were a number of other people in the room, though my vision seemed to tunnel in on itself. The lawyers were there, the court reporter was there, there was a woman seated in the spectator’s gallery. The plaintiff and defendants may well have been there, too. I don’t know; I was having trouble just focusing on the judge.
He was a sixty-ish Jewish man with thick glasses and a serious Brooklyn accent.
“Why didn’t you state your problems earlier?” he asked.
“Because I was just answering the questions the lawyers asked. I wasn’t trying to get out of it.”
“But if you had said something earlier, we could have gotten another juror.”
“I know, your honor. I’m sorry. I’ve never been on a jury before, and I thought it was my duty. But in the last week, I’ve lost two jobs because I’ve been unavailable.”
This went on for a few minutes, just so he could be sure I knew just how much of an ass he thought I was. Then, the questions turned to the other jurors. Did they know I was trying to get off the jury? I said I suspected they did. Had I discussed the note with any of them? I said I had not. The judge was obviously concerned that there would be a bum-rush of jurors with notes all trying to get off the case. He winced and shook his head at me, then told me it would be taken care of… and not to talk to any of the other jurors about this. I would corrupt them. I was a Rotten American.
I returned to the jury waiting room. The other jurors asked how it went. I shrugged my shoulders. Ten minutes later, we were all called into court, and told that the trial wouldn’t actually start until Monday. I felt better about my note.
Within another 15 minutes, I had received my discharge, and skipped down the courthouse steps. I felt deliciously free — reminiscent of how I felt upon my high-school graduation. I had weaseled my way out of my civic duty after all, and it felt great.
Vive le Canada!