Thursday, September 1, 2011

Juristatic Park

What arrives every two years and brings misery to millions? Presidential elections? Nope: those are quadrennial drags. Tax forms? Allergy season? Christmas? The Cubs and Red Sox sucking again? All annual miseries. Locusts? 19 year intervals. Killer bees? Still stuck in traffic in Brownsville.

Our bi-annual mopefest is the pink and white envelope that arrives in our mailboxes from the Office of the Jury Commissioner. Oh Shostakovich - You got jury duty again. And there aint no getting out of it anymore.

It used to be so easy. For most of its hallowed history the obligation to be a juror was easier to ignore than the FBI warning at the start of VHS tapes. The form arrives, you say that you have a job that pays more than $5.00 a day, and you send it back. Easy. Everybody did it. And across this vast nation each and every county eventually ended up with a pool of 13 retirees from which to pick the 12 juror slots necessary for each trial. Plus 1 alternate. (That's called foreshadowing, folks.)

So the rules were changed. Now the only people who get out of jury free are death row inmates, toddlers, animals, and the recently and/or currently deceased. On the other hand they have tripled the recompense to a whop-whop $15.00 a day and they give you .15¢ a mile in gas money.
One way.
Starting the second day.
Please allow four weeks for delivery.
Let's do the math: my zip code ends about 3 miles from the courthouse, and most trials take five days. So I'll be camped out by my mailbox, feverishly waiting for Ed McMahan and Dick Clark to deliver to me a check for $1.80. Two trials and I can get a Happy Meal.

I am fortunate however in that my employer pays full wages for jury duty. So instead of going to my stupid job I can get paid for dressing up in uncomfortable clothes, sitting on hypothetically padded seats in 75 degree temperatures and listening to lawyers all day. Hmmm. Thank goodness for that $1.80 bonus! And yes, I would like to Super Size that.

Still, its a choice between fulfilling my duties as a citizen and having a warrant issued for my arrest. And however uncomfortable the jury chairs are, there are doubtless more enjoyable than the Defendants chair. So I showed up on time in my best monkey suit.

The jury assembly room for our County Courthouse is a "mobile modular" building out back, where the outhouses would have been located once upon a time. The other double wide in the backyard is actually one of the courtrooms, or as a judge put it during a previous jurification, "Welcome to Superior Trailer Court."

The assembly room was a series of Deja Vu's. Firstly, municipal buildings may be the last, safe refuge for paneling. I hadn't seen particle board sheets with varnished pictures of wood grain glued on them in 15 years. Made me long to see 'Mork & Mindy' again. But a government building crossed with a trailer: paneling was almost assured to sprout in that sort of favorable environment.

Secondly, we were made to sit in little molded, plastic chairs with small writing surfaces extending from the right arm. I thought these relics had all been banished to the DMVs by this time. And on the ones I remember from grade school the little desk part folded up so you didn't have to dislocate your hip in standing up or hit your neighbor in the face with your butt cheek going by. And those desks are directly responsible for lefties having such awful penmanship.

At the desk you read a handout chock full of handy information, such as where to park. Just a tad late for that, don't cha think! The handout also includes this sentence, incongrously inserted in the paragraph on metal detectors: "Exits from the court building are adjacent to the entrance." Well it is refreshing to know that the doors work both ways and that we will be able to leave at some point. Otherwise we would have been stuck in the perpetually arriving courthouse paradox. "Please rise and stand on the walls, Judge M.C. Escher presiding from the ceiling...."

featuring 5 stories of cold, featureless concrete. 
Soon we were leaving the assembly room, apoligizing to each other for the butt cheek fly-bys, and we entered the building proper. Well, perhaps 'proper' is too strong a word. The Santa Cruz County Courthouse building at Ocean and Water Streets is the ugliest building in the Western hemisphere. There is a plaque that states the particulars of the building, but it is outside, behind some shrubbery. On this plaque though is the little-known fact that it was designed by a young architecture student on vacation from University. And his name was Leonid Brezhnev.

So we troop into a courtroom and sit in the spectator section. And another part of that handout sheet occurred to me. The part that says to "dress appropriately." I saw people dressed appropriately for all sorts of activities, from riding the range, to going to bed, to a night on the town. One young man had holes in his shoes, his jeans his t-shirt, and several unnatural ones in his head. One fellow was reading an apparel catalog. This seemed strange to me until I took a closer look at his Reebok shoes, Gap jeans, Ralph Lauren shirt, North face jacket, and Nike baseball cap. I am sure that if I snuck up behind him and gave him a wedgie I would have seen Tommy Hilfiger written on his underwear.

A young woman topped everybody though by appearing in skin-tight jeans with strategic cut-aways around the waist, ala Cher circa 1973. Every few inches around there was a strip of exposed flesh, like a skin belt. Astounding. This would look good on approximately NO ONE. Above that there was about 36 inches of midriff showing and then a bright red tank top that had fused with the upper layers of her epidermis. But hey, she was dismissed almost immediately and her obligation is now fulfilled. For all I know this outfit is hanging in her closet in a garment bag labeled "jury duty".

Then the Commissioner appeared. This is not quite a Judge (Judge without portfolio? Judge with training wheels? Judgette?) but you call him your honor and he had the robes and the La-Z-boy and the power of life and death, so I'll call him a Judge. Curiously though, no one stands when he enters. The bailiff even specifically calls out, "Stay seated, court is now in session." So maybe the people rising bit is the final, ultimate status symbol of the office.

The Clerk of the Court then swore us in as preliminary jurors. A motherly looking woman who did the swearing in and various other official duites, she nonetheless had a sizable chest tattoo peeking out from her sensible ensemble. Ya gotta love this town. There are no bibles in the court anymore, but you still have to raise your right hand for the promising. But what if you are left-handed? Shouldn't it be "raise your dominate hand"? Whatever. it looked pretty academic: It was a 1 in 5 chance. I was one of 60 folks and they only need 12.
Plus. One. Alternate. (That's more foreshadowing.)

So the Clerk of the Tattoo called up the first 12 and also 6 alternate candidates and we all got down to the serious court business of chatting with one another. Each of the lawyers and the Judge would ask a few simple questions and there was also a laminated sheet handed around that sparked a few more little talks. "No, I do not have any children, um, and none of them are employed."

It was all quite amiable and you learn some amazing gossip about your neighbors. I learned that there is a lot more volunteering going on than you might expect. Also, a lot of people are living some pretty awful lives through no fault of their own. Some folks spend their entire lives caring for some sick or disabled relative. I think there are a lot more heroes in our land than just the ones who run into burning buildings.

I also learned that there are some people who, shall we say, round out the bell curve:
"Do you drive?" "Yes." "Do you drink alcohol?" "Oh yeah!"
"Do you hold any bias against my client because she is choosing to defend herself in a court of law?" "Well she must have done something wrong to be here!"
"Do you drink alcohol?" "No." "Any particular reason?" "Well I'm not 21 yet!"
The normally blank-faced court reporter had a struggle with some of these comments.

And every half-hour or so the lawyers and judge would convene and then tell huge swaths of the jury and alternates to go home. My luck was stretching thin. my 5 to 1 odds dropped to 4 to 1 and then to 3 to 1. And that's where it stood at the end of day 1. Sometimes the wheels of justice turn glacially slow. They would soon spin very fast.

Next day I showed up better prepared. Lighter clothes for the hot house atmosphere of the court, sports water bottle, candy bars for that final push after lunch. Others too had adapted. it is, after all, what humans do best. The boy with the holes in everything now had on complete sneakers, newer levis, and a clean t-shirt. The shirt had a big picture of a skull on the front, but hey, for this guy this ensemble counted as a complete makeover. Other folks had on dress sweats, which I think is a legitimate fashion term now. Logan's Run may be coming true after all.

Oh, and no belts. Belts have to be taken off and run through the metal detector separately, while you stumble through the gate dropping candy bars and spraying water everywhere with your pants sliding down your thighs. It's not a pretty sight. Can one be arrested for indecent exposure when it is the State who demands that your modesty measures be handed over? How about suspenders? Girdles? Those security cameras may be catching quite a show from time to time.

Inside the Court of the Sauna, my luck ran out at 2 to 1 and I was called up to be the alternate. I guess I was okay about it. Jury service is the most important thing that the average citizen does for their country, along with voting in every election. And as twisted and broken as our systems of government are, I still believe in the ideals that our country has chosen for itself. Or, rather, we have chosen for it. And I believe that it is much more beneficial to fight from the inside than rail from without. Plus, the alternative at this point was a contempt of court citation and jail time. So I took my seat and kept my mouth shut.

The Jury now took the "this time for real" oath from the Clerk of the Tattoo, and they sat down in their cushy swivel chairs and placed their feet on the brass foot rail provided. I perched on my little stool in the corner by the chalkboard and tried to see more than the back of everybody's heads. In fact I am on the court record more than all the rest of the real jury combined, but all I was saying was things like: "Can you turn the map a little more? Thanks."

The trial? Nothing Grisham worthy. Suffice to say that the most dangerous drug is perfectly legal once you reach 21, and also that the most dangerous weapon in America often comes with a 5-speed and air conditioning standard. Also, Justice can too often come down to who is a better public speaker.

The verdict? Never happened. The novice Prosecutor made a bazillion errors and in the middle of day 3 the Judge finally exploded, declared a mistrial and suddenly we all got to go home and be regular citizens again. So the only thing worse than a lawyer is a crappy lawyer. But, as with doctors, they gotta start somewhere.

Like, perhaps this particular trial, which will now start ALL OVER AGAIN, with a new truckload of our tax dollars and a fresh new batch of potential jurors lined up outside the doublewide in the backyard.

Not me though. I won't be in that line for two long, glorious years. And when I am, I'll be the one in the dress sweats and the teeny tanktop.

Angus McMahan

1 comment:

  1. What a great refresher course on "the basics of our judicial system here, in SC County".