Thursday, October 25, 2007

Are You Being Summoned?

You've seen those grim pictures from the Great Depression of people waiting in bread lines. The air of tight-lipped suffering, the shuffle of resignation caught even in photographic stillness, the downcast visages ashamed to show the eyes of human dignity to a world of indifference . . . you know them well, right? In every text book read in middle and high school you have seen them -- overwhelmingly men -- in their shabby coats and dipped-down fedoras, steeling themselves for an activity they despised in a setting they had disparaged.

I have seen the modern day bread line, and it is jury duty.

In our stylish, but not too stylish*, Pacific Northwest autumn garb we stood, men and women in disgruntled solidarity, to serve a function for which we did not care and claim a privilege we would rather have forsaken. Our bleary eyes distant, our faces blank, we shuffled forward through security into both the King County Superior Courthouse and the Great Unknown. How long would our tenure last? How many dull hours of waste would we contribute to the grinding wheels? Would we ever breathe the sweet, sharp air of an October afternoon again this year?

At least, that is what I hoped I was projecting, and that was certainly what I read on the impassive faces surrounding me. It was Monday morning at 8:00 AM, and I was in Seattle. Normally, Seattle is a beautiful and exciting city -- one of my favorite places on earth -- but not at 8:00 AM . . . oh no, not then. Smarter jurors than I (or at least ones that did not need an hour to commute that morning) were coddling lattes in their chilly hands, and I looked hopefully, but in vain, up and down the street for a Starbucks. The KC Superior Courthouse must be on the only city block in Seattle not to have one.

As I looked from face to face, my eye noted another observer of the human scene. She stood, tall and alert, her eyes darting around, a small smile of inward amusement on her face. She, too, had several books clasped in her hands to help her while away the day. Our gazes locked for a brief second, and her small grin widened and my caffeine-deprived frown disappeared into smile of spiritual recognition. Just seeing her there helped me immediately understand that this was, in fact, a very hilarious situation, and one that I ought to be drinking in and enjoying fully. I lost sight of this young lady in the sea of the Juror Assembly Room -- and, I'll confess that, hunkered down in my book, I did not look too hard for her -- but she gave me strength to turn this civil burden and unpleasant inconvenience of jury duty on its head. At least, she did for a little while.

When I was not a mom and a nanny with the needs and nurturing of two little girls foremost in my mind, and I had a job that paid me full salary while I served on a jury, I longed to be summoned for jury duty. My innate sense of curiosity was itching to see the inner workings of our fine judicial system. For years and years (and I did not have Sadie until I was 28 -- ten years after becoming eligible to serve on a jury), I waited without fulfillment for that calling to come. Then, last year, it came. I have no idea now why I did not serve last year. I was not nannying Little Pumpkin then, and Jason was working his same old job, and life was pretty even-keeled. For some reason I cannot remember, I requested the "one time only" delay, and postponed my service for a year. Then, I blithely forgot all about it.

Lo and behold! This year the summons came again, this time without any offer of a one-year reprieve. Now, to serve, I had not only to interrupt our family's life, I had to interrupt Little Pumpkin's family's life as well. To top it off, Jason had recently gotten a new job at work and was mired down with multiple hassles. This turned out to be the least easily accommodated point of my life to serve on a jury. And I had to drive all the way into Seattle during the morning rush to the courthouse. Like the teenager I once was, I whined to myself and Jason (lucky man) about how "unfair" this was. Like, so totally unfair (to the max). But, I went. What else could I do?

And I sat. And I sat. And I finished Henry IV, Part I. And I finished Heritage of Ireland: A History of Ireland and Its People. And I finished The Claddagh Ring: Ireland's Cherished Symbol of Friendship, Loyalty and Love. And I went to the vending machine and got some Nutter Butter Bites. And I shyly chuckled at the exasperated witticisms of my fellow jurors. And then, I got called for a jury.

I'll admit: As inconvenient as it was for me to be there; as much as Jason was at home with Sadie, gnashing his teeth at the thought of the work going undone at the office; as much as Little Pumps was disobliged by hanging out with her little-seen Aunt Diane for the day; the process of being taken by a bailiff into an actual courtroom and seeing, for the first time in my life, a real judge, was an awesome thing. I was number thirty-four out of thirty-five jurors called, so the judge waved off my protests of hardship in light of the fact that it was unlikely jury selection would even get down to where my position was. So, I rather relaxed and began to enjoy the show. And, nobody puts on a show like a weaselly trial lawyer.

It was a civil case. There was a car accident in 2002, and the plaintiff was charging that the defendant was negligent in his driving; therefore, she was looking to have him found liable for damages. Of course, this lady was very lucky that I wasn't chosen to be on the trial, because I had immediately and unreservedly decided in favor of the defendant. He was a nice-looking, old hippie guy, with long hair and a beard. The plaintiff could obviously stand up and sit down without assistance, her face and body looked fine (i.e., as good as nature intended), and she had wits about her to hire an attorney (in my jaundiced view, this was probably just before the statute of limitations was most likely set to run out), so I had little sympathy for her. Plus, I was rear-ended in a car accident back in 2000, and I chose not even to collect insurance money for damage done to my car, because I felt so sorry for the young kid who hit me. In car accidents -- unless the person is criminally liable (i.e., drunk or under the influence of drugs) -- I tend to think that forgive and forget is the best policy; and showing gratitude for yet being alive is also best done by not bringing lawsuits.

That said, I do believe that both tort laws and tort law reform are necessary. We cannot have a free society without some means of redress for wronged parties. But, we also cannot have a truly free society when everyone is running scared because of lawsuits. There must be balance.

Anyway, the questioning process of the two attorneys was fascinating. Watching them reject and approve jurors was too. I was glad that I had the chance to observe American justice in action; and I was just as glad when the jury was picked, and I was dismissed to go back the the Juror Assembly Room. I waited there a couple more hours, and then -- ah bliss -- I was dismissed again to go home. My jury duty was fulfilled for at least two more years.

I could easily see myself serving on multiple juries when Sadie is old enough to drive me into Seattle and trip around the city by herself all day while I perform my civic duty. I could see its becoming a unit in our homeschool curriculum: The American Judicial Process or What Mom Did While I Lurked for Eight Hours in Elliot Bay Bookstore. Until then, though, I'll look to avoid it whenever I can. The Bread Line/Jury Duty Shuffle is a dance best done rarely -- and, when possible, with a Pumpkin Spice Latte in one's hands.

*I include this notation because of something very funny I recently heard: My friend, Holly, who is considering moving up here from Los Angeles was talking to another L.A. transplant about life in the PNW -- somebody a little less rah-rah about Seattle than I -- somebody who had actually found some redeeming qualities in Southern California, and yet had chosen to move north. This friend of my friend was sharing her views on the cultural vibe of the city (excellent), the surrounding environment (stunning), the character of the citizenry (exemplary), the weather (well, you know), and the fashion sense of the general public (mediocre, at best). That amused me to no end. I would never have thought to look at fashion as a factor in making a move . . . but, I guess, that's why my modest, sensible, and classic clothing sensibilities fit in so well in my beloved northern home. Viva Eddie Bauer!


kadie said...

Ahh, yes, how untimely juror summons always seems to be...why don't we ever get called up during our mid 20's when our responsibilities are few? I wholeheartedly agree how fascinating the judicial process is and yet how extremely inconveniencing it can be as well. Also, hoorah on the Seattle comfy clothes!

Mark said...

I've recently completed a form that may find me on jury duty myself. I've already been called - twice in the last six years - but I don't mind. There are several nice things about it.

First, I can bring my PC and work in peace. Second, I get to drive northwest, away from Chicago and the suburbs, where I can enjoy Woodstock, IL (where Groundhog Day was filmed). Third, I don't have to start early, so the drive is via side-roads, through a picturesque part of the countryside. Fourth, we almost always get let out early. It's rare that I've not been gone from the jury pool's waiting room by 3:00 PM. Fifth, I've never been picked for a jury, so when I get to see that courtroom for the first time it'll be "fun". And sixth - I have an iPod now.

And yes, I don't have to get dressed-up (no shirt and tie) and I do wear comfy clothes. Gym shoes, even.

I don't know how I'll react to being interviewed for a jury. I suspect that my straight-to-the-point, honest answers will help get me kicked out of the jury pool early. If not, I'll deal with it.