I just wrapped up a couple of days of jury duty in New York City. It wasn't pretty watching my hopeful images of democracy fade away.
Jury duty starts with a summons. The government officially demands you show up at a courthouse on a specific day and time. Not asks, not invites, demands. You, with the big mouth all about rights and the Constitution and racism in the justice system, time to get real. So I showed up 15 minutes early.
I got to the jury room only to learn the 8:45 stated arrival time with threats of fines if you are late is kind of an artifact from 1856. It was about 10:30 before a guy who said he'd been doing this exact same job for 34 years began speaking to us as if we were slow children or fairly smart puppies. The bulk of his explanation was about how we would get our $40 a day jury payment. It was then lunch.
The only consistent topic of conversation during lunch was how each planned to avoid serving on a jury.
We then gathered to learn that about half of us would be siphoned off for jury selection. The other half would spend the next four hours in that room, listening to two lethargic window box air conditioners try and cool a space big enough for half court basketball. The other thing was a death struggle to log on the limited WiFi. Part of the problem was that there seemed to be no filters, so the guy near me who was streaming Frozen sucked up more bandwidth than the entire row behind him trying to get to Gmail.
The hours ended. We were unneeded. We were dismissed until the next morning.
The next morning I was given a mission. I got called to jury selection.
We were brought to an unventilated hallway to wait for 30 minutes before entering an actual courtroom. Behind the judge were gold metal letters about 10 inches high that read IN GOD WE TRUST, and many flags. We did an olde timey swearing in, and then were invited to visit the judge and explain any "issues" we might have that would prevent us from serving.
It was pathetic. Who knew everyone in the courtroom had a sick mother and had to work nights and took medications and felt they could not faithfully follow the law due to some special need, or conviction, or conscience, or whatever, please your honor, whatever will work. The judge turned down some, accepted some. If anyone needed some stock footage to hit on the search term "cynical," this would do.
I got bounced out of the jury selection in the next phase. Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney asked us questions about our jobs, our thoughts on law enforcement (especially if we trusted police to testify honestly) and the like. I answered every question completely honestly and was thrown back to wait three more hours until "jury duty" was over. The only way I could have served would have been to lie. And I could have, and in what way does that make sense.
So look, this system is a mess.
The 19th century notion that everyone simply must find a way to put their 21st century life on hold does not work. I'm really sorry and I get the civic duty part, but telling single parents to just figure out child care, Wall Street brokers to just not care about literally millions of dollars, students to just miss class, and people who work freelance or hourly to just suck it up and lose their already limited income is not 2016.
If assigned to an actual jury, you stay with the trial until it is done. You have to figure out how to be there. For $40 a day.
That money thing is not a small deal. $40 a day, minus the minimum five dollars bus fare commuting to court and back costs, means you are getting about half the minimum wage in New York. If you are already living on the margins, you cannot afford to serve on a jury.
On the other end of the spectrum, it seemed that the better dressed a potential juror, the better excuse s/he had not to serve. Why, it was almost as if they prepped for this. There were magic words and some knew them and some did not.
And there was where democracy died. I had a hard time identifying anyone present who wanted to sit on a jury. It seemed almost everyone wanted out, though only some figured out how to do it successfully. I don't feel good saying it, but my limited window into all of this suggests juries might just be made up of people who can't get out of it. Hard to say how bitter that makes them feel listening to an actual case.
I believe in this stuff. But it was very hard for me to give up a week or a month's worth of income. I work 100 percent freelance and if I am not around I don't get paid. Half minimum wage does not help. I hate that but it is true. I went home angry at myself. I don't feel better now.