my day working for the GovMint

I got up earlier than usual one morning this week with three things in mind:

1. Find a parking space downtown
2. Locate and acquire hot coffee downtown
3. Elbow my way through the 300 other jurors to a seat in the Jury Lounge near an electrical outlet where my computer and I could be hooked to the juice.

(Next time I draw this gig I’ll amend these goals to include an outlet-convenient seat in the Jury Lounge that isn’t a hard plastic chair.)

At 8:15 am on a midwinter morning, the light pouring in great slanted streaks along the sides of the downtown high-rises turns the pollution-stained gray concrete to molten honey, beautiful in its own urban way. I turned into the dark cave of the parking garage closest to the Courthouse and made my way through the murk to what amounts, in downtown, to rock-star parking: a first-floor, street-level spot! I mentally checked goal number one off my list, and hoped I had misunderstood the signs at the entrance that said “Monthly Permits Only.”

I shouldered my messenger bag (with laptop and charger, plus a sci-fi novel just in case) and hit the street, finding with no trouble the coffee shop I remembered from the last time I got a traffic ticket and had to come to court. Goal number two, check.

In the courthouse, I shoved my bag onto the x-ray belt, cleared security, and made my way to the bank of elevators with approximately ninety-three other people. I looked at the five ancient-looking elevators, none of which showed any hint of activity. I looked at the ninety-three people. I checked my paper: 6th floor Jury Lounge.

Eight people followed me to the stairwell, which was fine until the third floor, where I decided my heart might explode. I slowed my initially peppy climbing pace, but no one seemed interested in passing me and taking the lead. We lost one person at the fourth floor, and I tried not to fill the stairwell with my labored gasps for oxygen as I headed to the fifth. We dropped two more there and our line strung out a bit, but five healthy people dogged my heels to the sixth floor landing, where I quickly stepped aside to minutely examine the fire escape route posted on the wall in an effort to keep myself from throwing up while I recovered my breath. And I thought I wasn’t going to get a workout on Jury Duty day.

The Jury Lounge was packed, but I claimed an unwanted plastic chair in the corner by an outlet, checked off goal number three and waited to see what would be next. Imagine my surprise when Charles Kuralt popped onto the televisions scattered throughout the lounge and gave us all a short tutorial on the American legal system. A gavel pounded dramatically and the title “YOU, The Juror” appeared, and Charles told me that this was not my duty, but rather my service, and that I should be proud to take my place in American legal history and tradition. I felt proud! He also admonished me not to whisper or pass notes with my fellow jurors, and I hung my head and felt admonished. Then it was all over and the lights came up and my name was called, and I trooped off dutifully behind the line monitor to the elevators where we were told to head down to the third floor courtroom. Four people followed me to the stairs. (I love going down the stairs.)

It’s possible that the world’s most stultifying job belongs to court bailiffs. After we were all seated in the courtroom, it appeared that it was a bailiff’s job to stand at the little gate to the jury box and with a courtly, sweeping-arm gesture, direct us into the box when our name was called. They did the same move (using the other arm) as we left the jury box. The judge told us that the bailiffs were there to handle any disturbances (whispering? passing notes?) but the two guys we had were young and slightly-built; I figured I could hold my own if it came to hand-to-hand, so long as they fought fair and didn’t use their guns.

Our judge, whose rural-southern-gentleman’s accent was so thick I had to strain to understand, asked us if we’d seen the “filmstrip” proceeded to once again explain the ground rules of jury duty (completely forgetting Charles’s explanation about it being a service rather than a duty, although this judge may have seen the actual filmstrip before it was updated as a made-for-TV special). When the first twelve names were called, I was thrilled to get Jury Seat Seven, in the front of the jury box immediately behind the witness chair and the court reporter. That’s the court equivalent of getting a front row seat beside Demi Moore at the Oscar de la Renta show during Fashion Week in Paris. Awesome.

The two lawyers were a study in contrasts. The defense was a young, overweight man who came across as sloppy and irritating, reminding me of an over-privileged frat boy as he whispered and passed notes (“Bailiff!”) to his client. The prosecuting attorney was sleek, beautiful, polite, and engaging in every way. I was sure that somewhere she had a tasteful handbag to match her shoes, and I caught myself hesitating when the judge asked us if we, the jury, would give equal attention to the words of both attorneys. If there were a vote, she’d get mine.

Two seats down from me in Jury Seat Nine was the whole world’s most adorable grandma, who promptly told the court, when questioned, that she was a preschool teacher. Of course she was. I just knew that at home she had a quilt with children’s tempera-paint handprints on it. The frat-boy lawyer asked her, since it was an assault case, whether she ever dealt with fights in the classroom. I gasped, but to the amusement of the court Grandma answered promptly, “Every. Single. Day.” The defense was unabashed, and pressed on. “And how do you handle those fights?” he asked sternly. “Do you punish both offenders, even if you don’t know who started it?” I wanted to slap him for impertinence, but Grandma responded evenly, “No. If we don’t know who started it, we simply separate them and redirect their attention. If we know who is responsible, we sometimes put them in time out.” I admit to having had several snarky thoughts about sentencing at this point, but Frat Boy surprised me again by immediately dismissing Juror Number Nine. I was aghast.

The only questions I ever got to answer were the same ones they asked us all when we first sat down: place of residence, job, and job of spouse. After Grandma was sent out in shame, one other man was dismissed pretty much at his own request (he said he just didn’t think he could pay attention to a court case), and Frat Boy called out the list of jurors he wanted gone. My name was on the top of the list. I started to launch a protest, but I was just so pleased at being lumped in with the scurrilous grandmother, as well as being mindful of the bailiffs, that I left without a word. I had done my duty…er, service, and I was free!

Upon reflection, I decided that I was doomed from the moment they heard I was in advertising, since we humble folk are of course believed to be inherently incapable of telling the truth, much less discerning it in others. I’m so glad I didn’t tell them I’m also a pastor, ’cause they kept Juror Number Ten, who did. I was out of there in time for a lunch date with my surprised and pleased husband, and I’m still gonna get my $12 check from the U.S. GovMint for a full day’s work.

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