You’re here to do your civic duty," said the slightly bored woman at the front of the room, charged with greeting the day’s jury pool. "We know this is not convenient for any of you, but it’s your duty as citizens of this great country."
We knew that. Both parts, actually, that it was our duty and that it was inconvenient.
But we were there black, white, Jew, Latina, Asian geared up and ready to serve.
The system in Bergen County, our guide continued, is more enlightened than in some other places (which she did, in fact name), requiring us to serve only for one day or one trial. We would receive $5 for a day’s service, she said, so we needed to be sure to validate our parking. Otherwise, we would end up paying more than we got back (pause for laughter).
If called into a judge’s chambers, we were not to use cell phones (nor, she added later, could we use them in the waiting room although that addition was clearly passive-aggressive, since several potential jurors were chatting on their phones while she was talking).
We could eat, but if we went down to the cafeteria to get coffee at the conclusion of her remarks, we had to hurry right back. And, she stressed, we had to wear our juror’s badges at all times, to prevent bigmouths from blurting out, in our presence, information on a case we might later be called to judge.
It was all very official and a bit daunting, and I, for one, was eager to be empaneled. Having never served on a jury and thus never having savored the experience of first-hand participation in the administration of justice (although I did once argue my own traffic case, and won, incidentally) I was looking forward to being selected.
As it happened, I wasn’t. In fact, I wasn’t even called into a judge’s chambers and asked if I could be fair. I could, and I wanted them to know that. I wanted, as it were, my day in court.
Lots of other people were called, and some were called twice. I’m not sure that’s fair. When you set aside a day to exercise the rights (and obligations) of citizenship, you should get to do more than just sit and read a novel. (I must admit that I lucked out here, since the book was actually good, but that’s not the point.)
We don’t get many ways to participate in the governance of our country. Sure, we can vote. And we can be good citizens by recycling and by reading newspapers and keeping ourselves informed. But especially in an age where "Law and Order" rules the airwaves, we want to do more. We want to have our voices heard.
I think the court system is making a mistake. They had us there, and we were poised for action. Surely, they could have found something for us to do. Maybe those of us not called up for a jury could audit a trial or serve as ombudsmen, monitoring the behavior of judges and juries alike. Maybe we could serve as ushers, escorting people to trial, or help screen packages at the courthouse door.
The point is, we were there and we wanted to help. Sending us home early only makes us skeptical (or at least makes us groan) the next time we get notices for jury duty. My bet is, if you let us roll up our sleeves and do something, next time there will be a lot less grumbling.