Monday, July 24, 2006

In which the Meridian is devoured by voir dire

Yes: I was chosen to serve on a jury in a civil trial last Tuesday, a trial which has proceeded by fits and starts through the end of the past week and will run at least through tomorrow, when we'll hear closing arguments. I have posted before about being excited to be summoned, and I'm still pleased to be serving, even though the trial's length, if it runs past tomorrow, will create some problems with my summer school classes (this week being the last week of the session). There's also the not-insignificant matter of our moving to a smaller apartment at the end of the week. But one thing I have learned is that, inside the courtroom, all that not-insignificant stuff pretty much ceases to matter.

Below the fold: some not terribly profound things that occurred to me while going through voir dire last Tuesday.

We're all familiar with many people's joking and not-so-joking reluctance to serve on juries: the pittance the state pays for serving; the loss of time (and money) away from work; the lawyers' agendas; etc. The overarching reluctance we feel, of course, is that for a length of time not of our choosing our lives are disrupted. We're creatures of routine, and those routines are ours, dammit; whether or not we happen to be on the whole happy with them is immaterial. We possess them; they anchor us; they guide us.

But as I was sitting and listening to and thinking about the questions asked of the other prospective jurors and of me, it occurred to me that what was unnerving about this experience and perhaps was for others was not that our lives would be disrupted but that we'd be forcibly inserted into the lives of utter strangers. That, of course, makes many of us uncomfortable in the best of circumstances. And more: those of us chosen would quite literally be sitting in judgment on these strangers, and not in accordance with whatever personal value system we might ascribe to. We have no anchor except that rather innocuous-sounding phrase "the facts in this case" and what the law has to say about what we can say about those facts.

Besides: our bailiff tells us that while all trials share similar features, each one assumes its own particular rhythm, such that, as with baseball, no two trials are alike. Its time becomes something that feels only tenuously tethered to "clock time": we break to give the court reporter time to rest; we recess for lunch and for the evening, but those are only internal markers in a proceeding that assumes a life of its own. What Yogi Berra said of a baseball game is equally true of a jury trial: It ain't over till it's over. It's just that we usually don't mind when a baseball game goes into extra innings.

Television law dramas misrepresent what happens in a courtroom. Or better said: they spoil us. I'm not just speaking here of how they are forced to compress narrative time or how the lawyers or witnesses, to put it kindly, have better writers than do the participants in the trial I've been chosen for. I'm speaking of how, in those dramas, their narrative point of view is that of a lawyer whom we viewers naturally, sympathetically root for. They make our job easy: we don't care about Truth; we just want to see our guy win. The television audience is a rigged jury; even if McCoy of Law & Order should lose his case this week, he was still right in our eyes.

But this jury that I'm serving on, though, has the job of choosing between two competing narratives--they serve as our scripts. The lawyers serve them up to us, seek to persuade us; the judge will instruct us: the closest thing we'll get to direction as to how to think about all that we've heard. We don't have anyone or anything to root for except the desire to be right.


Joseph K said...

I'm not sure I agree. I think the American public loves to watch the (real or imaginary) lives of others (and in fact does so obsessively) Perhaps if it were a lurid case, you would have no problems getting a jury. (My experience is that people who think they are more important than others are those who seek relief from jury duty.) I think that trials for most people (myself excluded) are not entertaining and not foreign enough to rip us away from our desires to earn money and give up our free movement for an undisclosed amount of time. Almost all the people I know in my community view jury trials as a waste of their valuable time (and tend to frame things in terms of the loss of money they will sustain and the loss of control ( in terms of their business, family etc.)) I believe this is a rather sad comment on our culture. Of course, one might also take Kafka's viewpoint that the law is completely incomprehensible and absurd and then being a juror would also represent a waste of time (but a duty one should still strive to uphold, if I read Kafka correctly)

René López Villamar said...

Wow, that seems really interesting. I hope you'll tell us how things worked during deliberation and such. I always enjoy your point of view of things.


R. Sherman said...

My guess is you are the most thoughtful person on the panel. I look forward to the post mortem.


poco said...

You're so lucky. When I've done jury duty, I sat around for three days and no cases! BORING!

Aunty Marianne said...

I've always wanted to serve on a jury but being an expat it will never happen.

However silvertongued the lawyers, I'm sure that you'll see the right of the case in whatever plain evidence is, and as you're a good person your conscience will help with the rest.

Good luck.

Winston said...

Roomie just finished a grueling one-day jury duty. The proceedings took all day, tied up a jury plus the officers of the court, plus the judge, a dozen or so witnesses, many of whom had to leave their jobs to be there. This circus took place in the beautiful new high-tech, secure shrine to justice, the County Court House, which the next several generations of tax payers will be saddled with.

The claim was for $137. The claimant lost. The trumpets of justice blared loudly. And cost the tax payers thousands of dollars. For a paltry $137!

Is small claims court a myth? Is it no longer acceptable to just drag someone out behind the garage and beat the snot out of them?

R. Sherman said...

Alright, it's been a week. We're waiting for your take on jury duty.