I’m on call for jury service this week, and I’m willing; I’ve always been willing. After all, isn’t this service one of the most important things a citizen can give, other than vote? Haven’t I been telling our kid and the other kids I tutor for years that this is part of a citizen’s right and duty?
Not so simple. A couple of years ago I received the note in the mail, my group was called and I showed up in that big bleak room where you sit for hours with your sandwich and water bottle and a book until they pull out batches of folk to be examined and sworn. Oh yes, we also had little quizzes to fill out, focused on whether we’d be impartial in the box, for this is, after all, a very small city. I made a couple of acquaintances, heard stories, one woman ranted about all the ways in which she’d heard she could get herself excused, from saying she was pro-death penalty to saying she was pro-drug-legalization. I did my best not to smile at the wrong times and finally went back to my book.
When they called the next batch up, I was among them– over thirty people, all qualified to serve. They ushered us into a side court and we rustled to our feet in respect at the Judge’s entrance. What a lovely Judge he was, too, tall and lantern-jawed, silver haired patrician with the gleam of steel spectacles and a swirl of great black sleeves. His voice, deep-timbred and felicitous of expression. He looked upon us in our motley with pleasure, welcomed us as his guests and praised our dedication to the noble cause of justice, our sacrifice of time and effort. A spare gesture with his hand, inclusive and gracious. A warm glow suffused us all.
We raised our right hands and swore to tell the truth in all things, and then he explained that in his court every jury member had to give over his or her judgment to be subject to his interpretation of the law as the Judge, for the law was complicated, bound in heavy precedent. Sometimes, he explained, his voice kindly, what seemed right in the outside world would not be right in a court of law, and we must accept this for the term of our service. He sat a little straighter in his seat above us and said that now he needed to know if there were any person in the room who could not promise to follow these instructions. To my deep dismay, my hand shot up. Why do I have to be so horribly literal?
I am a coward in public places, my one desire is to be just another face in the crowd. A pleasant face, if noted at all. I have a profound almost instinctive respect and reverence for educated authority figures.
With a gentle smile he invited me up to a little podium at the front and began to question me.
My mind blanked. All I could articulate and I did it badly, with my knees knocking, was that I could never surrender my sense of right and wrong to any other person’s principle or to any other person’s interpretation. He tried positing a case to me but I was so distressed I could only stammer ‘I can’t do as you say. Isn’t a jury supposed to correct precedence, not follow it?’
The kindly aristocratic face went grim and he dismissed me, like a bad dog, and I went down the court feeling incredibly stupid, as vulnerable as a hound with its tail between its legs. I almost went out the wrong door. Dismayed I stood a moment on the shining polished tiles of the great echoing corridor outside, then fled to catch a bus home.
I was summoned again for jury duty less than ten days later. I suppose my beautiful Judge thought I was trying to escape from service, and in a disrespectful way, to make it worse. Memory of that episode makes me cringe. It’s mere luck that the next Judge had a different way of presenting matters to his court and the question of obedience to the interpretation of the Judge didn’t come up, so I simply swelled the crowd, was not in the end picked to be on the jury, and escaped the issue.
For the next couple of years I was home-nursing my parents, so escaped the call.
In the meantime I have looked into this matter, still stinging with humiliation, and it seems my instinct is in some legal circles, considered correct. The entire purpose of a jury, some pundits say, is to provide the common man’s perspective, and the common man’s correction upon the precedent set by law. The perverse verdict is an honorable result of proper process. There was even one article stating that no judge should ever try to impose his judgment upon a jury. He can explain precedent, give examples, school his jury, but no judge should dictate the interpretation of what is right and wrong in a case. When you consider the reason for the jury –which is to maintain within the judicial system the role of the judgment of your peers, this makes sense.
I’m up for jury duty this week. Let’s see what happens this time.