Throughout my entire career, I was able to escape the drudgery of jury duty, because I was convinced that what I did for a living, advertising, took precedence over serving. My meetings were way too important, my assignments too pressing, and I was always able to get a fancy letter from a CEO or other VIP to excuse me.
Now that I am not working, I have no such excuses. Believe me, I racked my brain looking for them. So I found myself for the first time, somewhat timidly, making my way to the Superior Court of Santa Barbara very early Tuesday morning to report for duty.
It did not start well.
First off, patience has never been one of my strengths, and I had even less of it than usual that first day. After a small scuffle with the “Juror’s Parking” parking attendant, I ran the several blocks to the Superior Court, arriving late to a standing room only auditorium of potential jurors who were getting instructions for the day. Over two hundred of us spent the next two hours standing in line, checking in, standing in line again, getting a badge, waiting in uncomfortable chairs, then standing in line again to go up the stairs through security into the courtroom.
In the courtroom were no less than five armed bailiffs. The air was formal and tense. Four defendants and each of their attorneys sat and watched us walk in and take our places, one by one. As they stared at us, they reminded me of when my colleagues and I would hold casting auditions for commercials, and we would sit back and whisper among ourselves as we took measure of the actors and decide who would get the part. I did not draw one comfortable breath the entire time I was in that airless courtroom. It was a trial concerning one murder and one severe beating, and would have required our attendance for 6 to 8 weeks, so ultimately most of us, including me, were excused and asked to report to another courtroom after lunch.
The afternoon went slightly better. After waiting for nearly two hours, we were once again asked to get in line and walk (please no jay walking!) across the street to another courtroom where they began interrogating us in depth to be jurors. Fortunately there was no security screening and only one defendant, but still, waiting to be called felt like a combination of waiting to get a mammogram and waiting to be assigned a seat on an oversold airplane.
The rest of the day was spent listening to the stories of the potential jurors who were being questioned by the judge and attorneys. Some were poor, some were very wealthy. One guy seemed ill, and I think one may have been drunk. Most were thoughtful, earnest and conscientious people just trying to do the right thing. I was touched by how, like me, no one really wanted to spend the next several days in court as they, too, had lives and families and things they needed to do. Yet they did as they were told, spoke from the heart about what they believed, and allowed themselves to be seated or dismissed, as the judge decreed.
It was humbling.
The afternoon spilled into the next day, and I appeared again after a restless sleep, wanting to be called, wanting not to be called, and wanting it all to be over. I was finally called, answered everything to the best of my limited abilities, and was thanked and dismissed.
I flew out of the courtroom into the brilliant sunshine and felt oddly exhilarated. I realized it was the first time since I left work that I really was required to spend a few days being responsible, and it felt good. It felt good to be part of something that mattered to the freedoms I so carelessly enjoy, and it felt good to have been part of a community again.
This week, I have been thinking about the tragedy in Tucson, and the ordinary people who did such extraordinary things; a husband who threw himself over his wife to save her from being shot, an intern who tended to the congresswoman’s wounds in a way that surely saved her life, the little old lady (even littler and older than I) who stripped a magazine away from the shooter and prevented even more shots being fired.
What would I have done had I been outside that supermarket that morning? I honestly can’t say. I doubt if I would have done anything heroic. But I could not have hidden behind my job and say that I couldn’t help because I have a meeting to get to or a script to write. I hope I would have had the presence of mind to do whatever was right. And I hope I would have found the strength within me to do so.
I understand now, like never before, that jury duty is a simple, basic, common duty I have as an American, and I feel honored to have been called to serve. I respect and celebrate those who sat next to me throughout those uncomfortable hours, who, one by one, did what was required of them for the state to select 12 jurors.
Maybe next time I will have the distinct honor of being seated.