Friday, May 21, 2010

Your civic duty

"This is a court of law young man, not a court of justice" Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Yesterday I was one of those citizens doing their duty by showing up for Jury Duty. In all my times I have been called I have never been selected to sit on a jury. First, I would be excused because I was the caregiver to our daughters. "Excused" The one time I was sitting in a room being asked questions as a group, I knew the plaintiff. "Excused!" Another time I was going to be out of the country "Postponed". This time, although I had a very busy schedule, I had not children to care for, no plane tickets bought and no work I couldn't work around.

After watching a video about how important jury service is, I was in the first group to go down to the court level. 2 trials were beginning later that day, so it was time to select juries.

I have been in court a couple of times, twice in support of other people. Oh and there was that one speeding ticket, and the small claims court about a guinea pig.... but that is another story. Oh and that nasty affair of a roof in Texas... don't get me started on that one. The courtrooms in Marin are located in our Civic Center, in a beautiful building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The style of the building is modernistic while still having some decided art deco design. The courtrooms themselves are rounded in design, sent under a round coved ceiling with big bright discs for lights. When we came into the room the jury pool filled each seat and the jury box.

The hallways outside the courts

I noticed the very young attorneys standing and staring solemnly at us as we entered, and a Hispanic man with earphones on sitting next to another man who was talking non stop into a microphone is a hushed voice. Judge Boren explained what the procedure would be. He said what the criminal charges were against the man, and then they began their whittling off the jury pool, one by one.

Most of what happened was frankly, very boring. The interesting thing was watching the people. The system aims to put twelve of your peers on the jury to sit in judgement of you. What defines a peer? Is a peer a fellow working at Pixar? A woman who was a founding member of MADD? Is it the Real Estate Investor? or the Fire chief? Is a peer a woman, or a man? Young or old? Black, white, brown or Asian? What exactly is a peer.

I sat next to a person who is an actress. We talked about the day being good theater, and how real people are really very entertaining if you sit back and watch them. I suggested most of life is great theater. Toward the beginning of the day watching the two young attorneys find their way through the proceedings, struggling with their questions, stumbling on their words was interesting but it grew quite painful to watch. By the time the jury was finally seated it was nearly 5pm. I sat in the remaining jury pool of 5 people. The twelve men and women and the two alternates were the sole survivors of the selection process. The others had been excused by the judge or by the attorneys. The attorneys used up all their peremptory challenges (nine each).

In the end, the jury consisted of a blend of men and women all middle aged or younger. The jury also was 2 Asian, 11 white and one black. The one Hispanic candidate was not selected.

I tell my clients once you get to a court proceeding like arbitration or a jury trial you have already lost. We as people are imperfect and there will never be true justice. The jury trial seeks to give a person the best chance possible at justice. But as we know... it too is imperfect. And yes Sonay, OJ is and always was guilty.

The young attorney asked prospective jurors (more than once and in more than one way....) Do you believe our system is correct that a man is innocent until proven guilty. Every person said they believed that, but I wondered how honest they were being.

We live in a society where we have been observers. The lives of people both real and imagined plays out on our TVs on the big screen, in newspapers and the Internet. Into each and every situation we find ourselves in, we take our experiences, both real and imagined. They have already weighted the scale of judgement we carry in our minds. I suppose the best any of us can do is to be open to the scale being filled with new information that might influence or alter our decisions.

So you see, if they had sat me on the jury, I might have said something along the lines of "of course I believe in the system but I also think it isn't easy." Somehow I think, even if they questioned me I wouldn't be selected. Not being selected or even questioned, I kind of felt like I failed a test. I would have wanted to serve because I do think it is important.

I wish the jury I almost sat on... good luck. It is easy to be jaded. I have seen less than perfect justice more than once. I am suspecting I will continue to see it, because after all that is what makes it all so interesting, the imperfection. It makes it perfectly imperfect.