root - Posted on 01 January 2000

an untelevised reality

by TJ Johnston

Having lived in this burg for a few years, I do so with a minimal sense of obligation - go to work, pay the bills, don't transmit any STDs. In addition to this bare minimum, I also fulfill other requirements: converting to a State ID and registering to vote.

The unintended benefit of either of the latter two acts is an invitation to participate in that hallmark of English common law, jury duty. Something comes over me when I get the summons, a feeling which fails me when I buy Girl Scout cookies or do volunteer work: the feeling that I can make a difference.

Not even my roommates's derisive laughter as she shows me the official document can curb my newfound enthusiasm for discharging my civic duty. Why should I care she "no habla ingles'-es her way out? She'll only have to display an even lesser command of the language to be disqualified next time (I have half a mind to drop a dime to the Jury Commissioner---"the books she reads may be in a New Agey, self-help dialect, but English is still her first language!").

The summons arrives one month prior to the date I have to report. I am assigned a badge with a bar code, a group number and a voicemail line I can call to ascertain when my group when my group should avail itself. I am now in the running for the Irish Sweepstakes of American jurisprudence.

"You have reached the Jury Duty Hotline. If you know the group number you've been assigned, please enter it now. If you have a rotary phone, find yourself a cave to ensconce yourself with your phone, Atari, vacuum-tube TV, and other outmoded items of your backward existence and kindly remove yourself from the twenty-first century at your earliest convenience."

Quickly, my fingers dance on the touch-tone buttons.

"If this is your group number, please dial again tomorrow after 6:00pm."

Rats! This is the outgoing message I am subjected to three days straight. Another two days of this means no oppotunity to decide on the next Scopes, Rosenberg, or Jenny Jones trial.

Day four. Same dial-pad drill. "I this is your group number, please report tomorrow to Room 7 in the Civil Courthouse at 400 MacAllister Street. If you were not listening, please hold for a stern reprobation for your attention deficit..."

Yes! I make it through the qualifying round.

The following afternoon, I arrive in what passes as "business casual" with summons in hand. I attest, under penalty of perjury, that i am born or naturalized in the US, fluent in English, not a California Peace Officer, absent any felon or parolee status, or otherwise physically, physically, emotionally or spiritually incapacitated in a way which would preclude my being one of a dozen masters of another person's destiny.

Now, the wait. One minute turns to two. Two turns to six. When six becomes nine, the clerk announces, "The following people please report to Room 509 for jury selection..." Having a patronymic beginning with a middle letter of the alphabet has historically proved itself to be, at best, a mixed blessing. Fortunately, no Gs, Hs or Is delay her from calling my name.

The cattle call continues. The judge of this case introduces himself and establishes the rules of the game.

"Our bailiff, Rusty, will hand you a questionnaire," states the jurist. "Some questions are general, others specific to the case. Remember there are no right or wrong answers."

Obviously, he never took the Scientologists' Personality Test. But if I can beat L. Ron Hubbard's instrument of mental fortitude, then i can will my way through this inventory.

"Do you know any lawyers or parties to this liability suit?" (No.)

"Do you have any feelings about lawyers?" (No.)

"Do you feel jury awards are generally too large, too little or just right?" (Often too little.)

"Is there anything in the media about this case that would, in any way, bias you?" (None that they don't slant already.)

"Can you give a corporation a fair trial?"

The last question gives me pause. Ninety-nine times out of 100, corporations are responsible for public health catastrophes, like Union Carbide's toxic gas leak in Bhopal, Phillip Morris' willful snaring of people into tobacco addiction, and McDonalds' overheating of caffeinated beverages.

There are nine plaintiffs in this case and deep pockets to be dug into. When will I again have the opportunity to ally myself with The People and stick it to The Man (and to the tune of millions of dollars)? Probably never. If I mark the X accordingly, I may be bumped off the case.

Twenty minutes later, my quandary continues.

"Can you give a corporation a fair trial?" (Nnnn---yes!)

As I hand the Sheriff's Department rent-a-cop my questionnaire, I am instructed to report back one week from Monday---after the judge's vacation.

Jury Selection day. The door to the courtroom has a chart indicating assigned seating for each of the fifty prospective jurors. I have no idea why I am Number 17 (and I figure I'm better off not knowing).

The same judge, tan and well-rested, points us to an easel, and impels us to disclose certain details about ourselves.

"My name is TJ Johnston. I live in the Haight and have been living here since 1994. I'm on unemployment and I like to tree surf. I've never served on a jury before, but I'm a big fan of the judicial process!"

"Oookay," I hear the judge mutter. He hands the meeting over to the attorneys whose function is to determine our fitness and eligibility to sit in a jury box.

The Plaintiff's Attorney, who filed suit against the corporation, begins the proceedings. I am immediately impressed. She looks like Lara Flynn Boyle, only better nourished. The Defendant is a middle-aged white guy. Based on these factors alone, I know where my sympathies lie.

Lara Flynn (plus fifteen pounds) starts with other juror wannabes (as well as unwannabes): blue-collar tradespeople and other workers of the world, and also people whose family members were afflicted. She begs of one person to expond his feelings about jury awards. The gut rejoins,"I thought the woman who spilled McDonalds' coffee got way too much. Coffee is meant to be hot and nobody with any sense would put it on their lap." She asks if he could put those feelings aside for this case. "I don't know. I still think they give too much money."

Thank you for playing.

Plaintiff's Attorney then directs questions at me. "Is there anything you've heard today that would bias you?" I blurt out, "I don't think so." Immediately, I know it's the correct answer.

Next question: "There are nine plaintiffs in this case. I f you wondered 'where are all the other complainants,' would you consider that?"

Defense demands a ruling. "Your Honor, I think the question is vague and misleading." His Honor replies, "I'll allow it." Lara Flynn riterates her question. I tell her I like to think I could limit myself to just the parties and specifics of this case. She smiles and nods approvingly. Good answer, I think, and I think I'm connecting with the lawyer babe.

Defense asks Juror Eighteen, seated next to me, about his sick relatives. Eighteen feels that his employer's afflicted his dead uncle. By lunchtime, Number Eighteen is excused. The new Number Eighteen is also quizzed by the Defense, this time about Number Eighteen's previous litigation experiences. "I sued somebody once and got jerked over. another time, I was sued and got jerked over again." Would he be able o except those experiences if he sat on this jury? "Hell, no. i might get jerked over a third time." With that, the second Number Eighteen is cast away.

I notice it is already 3:00pm when the judge orders another break. I feel jazzed to have made it this far. Soon enough, I'll learn my fate vis-a-vis eleven of my peers, a Lara Flynn Boyle who doesn't skip meals, and, by extension, the victims of corporate malefactors.

After recess, the herd considerably thins out. Thirty people remain and the afternoon commute for courtroom personnel is only minutes away. They need their twelve angry men (and two disgruntled alternates) now. It is time, the Plaintiff's Attorney announces, for the Preemptory Challenge (cue kettle drums here)!

In this lightning round of the legal realm, the attorneys from each side take turns in excusing Jurors One through Twelve without needing an excuse. After the number is called, the next jurors from numbers Thirteen to Thirty takes the ousted juror's seat and number. Each attorney is allowed eight turns to arbitrarily send a juror back to his or her dreary life. At the end of the Challenge will remain the Twelve and Two.

This is my last chance to gain the favor of Helen Gamble's stand-in. Positive energy, positive energy.

The advocates start throwing out numbers. Seats immediately empty and are filled. After round four, Number Sixteen usurps a vacancy. When Defense excuses Number Five, I take delight in my sudden promotion. I jump an even dozen notches, with a bullet, into chair number five. I am all that and a bag of chips!

Successively, Lara Flynn announces, "The court would like to thank and excuse...Number Five."

I am the Weakest Link. Goodbye!

Cue the violins to accompany my exit and forlorn journey to the assembly room, where I bid a profound and heartfelt farewell to the clerk, as she revokes my barcode and processes me out. "Next!" This is more than what the David E. Kelley reject upstairs offered me.I never even received a lovely parting gift.

I feel a hundred different emotions as I leave the building. Disappointment. Loss. Need to urinate. Disappointment. Loss... well, I feel different emotions at least. To have my attempts to right a heinous wrong thwarted, in such a random fashion, is a sever blow.

I tell my friends that I went "for the experience." That is true enough, but I yearned to be chosen.

I run into acquaintances who cavalierly ask if I beat jury duty.

"No," I solemnly reply, "it beat me."

(This article originally published by One 'Zine SF, Jan. 2002.)


Sign-up for POOR email!