Picture this: About 80 people with really bad attitudes in a large room, shouting into their cellphones. The room is painted gray and the carpet's gray, too. Styrofoam cups are clutched in the other hand of the cellphone users.
It's a jury assembly room - and what everyone's shouting into their phone is that they have jury duty, and that their life is ruined for the next few days. I'm one of these people. The old "My employer doesn't pay for jury duty; I have kids, etc." no longer works. If you have jury duty, you show up and serve.
The summons had arrived a few weeks ago with my group number (20) and a telephone number to call the night before I was to report to court. When I called Sunday night, the voice on the tape announced that no groups were needed for jury duty the next day. Monday night, I was told that groups 1 through 5 were to come in the following morning. It looked as though I might wiggle out of this. But two nights later the recorded voice said group 20 was to report at 7:45 Thursday morning.
I cannot tell you of the disruption, the crazed juggling, the panic of having no control over the next couple of days of my life. I'm too busy to do this: I have a teaching schedule. I have deadlines. I have a family to deal with.
Nevertheless, here I am in the jury assembly room, on my cellphone, trying to rearrange my life. Eventually, 25 of us are called into the courtroom for a panel. A jury is to be chosen for what sounds like the most boring trial on the planet - a civil suit, a contract dispute.
We introduce ourselves to the judge and lawyers - name, occupation, marital status, children, and previous jury duty. During the voir dire we're questioned about any contract disputes we've been involved in. I tell the judge of disputes over contracts that anyone remotely connected to me has ever had. I want to make it clear that I was deeply involved in these cases emotionally and would not be a good juror for the case. It doesn't work. I'm chosen.
The judge is respectful of us. The system cannot work without us, she tells us; we are the true judges in the courtroom.
Out of a large crowd of angry cellphone users with bad attitudes, we begin to form a group of 12 individuals. There's the young woman who has tickets to Italy next Tuesday, the optometrist whose grown child is disabled, the waitress at Norm's, the actor/rock musician who's missing rehearsals, the security guard, the television commercial producer. I realize jury duty is not convenient for anyone.
I also discover that a contract dispute is not boring at all. Who's lying? Who's telling the truth? Was the phone call really made? Was the letter sent on the date sworn to? Most of us take copious notes.
The trial is over on the second day, and we begin deliberations. We choose a foreperson (the actor/musician) and start talking about the case. Everyone has something to add, some new angle to think about. We don't all agree, but everyone takes this case seriously. We adhere to the judge's admonition about sticking to the law and not getting sidetracked by emotional issues. When the bailiff arrives to tell us we can go home, we ask for another 10 minutes. When that time is up, we reluctantly leave our notebooks and the trial exhibits and head home for the weekend. Going down in the elevator, no one talks about the case (that would be against the rules), but we've become connected. We all wish each other a pleasant weekend.
On Monday we deliberate late into the afternoon, making sure we've covered everything. None of us takes this lightly; there's a lot of money - and more important, someone's honor - at stake.
Since it's a civil, not a criminal case, our verdict doesn't have to be unanimous. One woman sides with the prosecution and explains her reasons; she'll vote guilty. The rest of us will vote not guilty; we're not particularly happy with our verdict, but 11 of us believe that the prosecution did not present proof beyond any doubt.
We all feel the burden of power we have as a jury. The judge was right; we are the true judges in the trial. The system depends on us.
I also learned that when 12 people come together to judge a case and offer a verdict, they become more than the sum of their parts. No matter what lives the summons pulled us from, we became a jury of peers.