Democracy and I

The county paid me $6 for enjoying my right to be a petit juror. Since I was a standby, not required to be in the Central Jury Room of the Dallas County Courthouse before 1 p.m., I was surprised the wages weren't $3. I didn't have to buy lunch. Included in the summons was a one-way pass on the bus. It was up to me to get home.

Although I missed the bus that would have gotten me there on time, the bailiff did not scold me. He did look harried by repetition. That same morning, at least two hundred Americans had sworn to do their best by the truth.

Many repeat upholders of the legal system had known to bring reading material; others played dominoes; a few waited outwardly idle, their personal lives in abeyance while a stranger's crisis reached out for direction. Several panels of prospective jurors were called to the front of the room. ''Here'' rang out in varied tones of civil obedience. A few were barely audible, shyly reluctant at this public appearance. Some shouted ''present'' with the startled, hasty attention of a daydreaming student. Only two names brought no response. Since it is against the law not to comply with a jury summons, perhaps those two never received this note of urgent need from a fellow countryman.

The woman seated next to me was conversational. She had been often called, never chosen. This trip was my second. The cases I had been selected for the first time had been settled out of court, and I had felt disgruntled: cheated of an opportunity to serve and decide, and guilty at relief to go about my own affairs.

Used to waiting, I had brought a volume of short stories and some knitting. My row-mate had left her crocheting at home along with her ''retired husband,'' who ''expected his lunch.'' (She had left it on the stove.) She refused my tales , preferred to chat.

Jurors in recess, wearing their JUROR badges like medals, wandered, heavy with facts, silent except for hurried telephone calls warning of possible lateness. They looked useful, selected.

Just before 3:30 a few of us were excused. I felt rejected - kind of like not being asked to dance. As I gathered my things I heard a clerk thank and release the rest of the would-be jurors. She was endeavoring to explain the necessity for large numbers to appear. She was apologizing for asking our time to be free citizens. She was regretting our inconvenience in being offered this view of American jurisprudence in action.

However brief, however practiced, her remarks were deeply poignant to me, arresting in their very lack of dramatic tone.

While I had not cast a vote to condemn or acquit, my day had not been shot, by any means. I had learned from my crocheting friend how to use raw manure for rose planting. (Like many things, it needs to ripen.) The bus ride home was short, a new route to me, a new look at my town, and we all had been given a copy of the Dallas County Juror Handbook. On the first page, G.K. Chesterton is quoted: ''Our civilization has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men.... When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing around.'' (Surely even Chesterton meant ''men or women.'') Two days later the district clerk and the county treasurer wrote me jointly that I had been ''helping to make democracy a working reality.''

Seems to me I should have sent the county a check.

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