Jury Duty Day 2: More sitting and waiting, this time with a hint of panic

For Day 1 of Jury Duty, click here.

This is the trick of jury duty. If you get excused on Day 1, you still have to call back for the next day to find out if there is another trial. So I arrived on Day 2 like an old pro, giving directions to folks who didn’t know how to get into the courthouse. I was done with the criminal trial, but there was a civil trial that required my service. I took out my copy of “Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” and read for another two hours while waiting to enter the courtroom. I knew from the first day that the repeated “We’ll be with you all in a few minutes” actually meant at least 45 minutes so I sat and read. Reading helped me feel calm and connected as I thought about participating in the moment and my relationship to all of the people around me, the grass, the solar system. I practiced mindful breathing and already felt less anxious and judgmental than the previous day. Of course that was easy to do when all I had to do was sit on a bench.

At 11:00 we were again herded into a courtroom. This one was massive and ornate and fit my mental picture of a courtroom. The benches were already full and the only seating left was up front in the jury box. I reluctantly placed myself in that conspicuous location between a Southeast Asian woman and a Filipino man, both of whom I had met the previous day. The man leaned over and asked me if this meant that we were picked for the jury. He voiced my own fear, but I mustered my earlier feeling of confidence and told him no.

The judge entered and gave the speech of gratitude and responsibilities of being a juror. Looking back, I should have suspected something based the length and tone of his monologue. In a somber and serious voice he told us how he appreciated our service. Then he hit us hard. This trial would last until September 22nd. The courtroom rippled – an audible communal gasp. The judge asked everyone who could serve this term to raise their hand. I sat frozen, afraid of moving and drawing attention to myself, so I never saw how many hands were raised. Based on the snickers of the crowd, it was only a few.

The judge embarked on another speech about people wanting to go to the beach or go golfing instead of serving for a month, but that wasn’t a good enough excuse. I didn’t want to go to the beach or golf; I just wanted to work and make enough money to survive. The best part about serving your critically important civic duty is that they compensate you appropriately – $40 a day. So less than $800 for a month long trial when you factor in Labor day and the upcoming Jewish holidays. Not to mention I would not be able to accrue any sick or vacation time during that period.

After his second speech that sounded much like he was berating a group of spoiled and ungrateful children, the judge asked for raised hands again. He told everyone who could serve to leave and return at 1:30 for juror selection. He would hear the rest of our excuses one by one in the front of the courtroom. Here I will mention how much I admire the people, and one African American woman in particular, who got up and left like they were going to come back, but just never returned. I wish I could have done that.

Most of this has been an account of external events. Internally, I was panicking. I felt trapped. I had just started a new job. I had no idea if they would give me my full pay for jury duty. I had to start paying $250 a week for daycare soon. I also had other personal reasons that I am not comfortable sharing here yet. I knew I was going to have to give my excuse, but I was determined not to cry. I couldn’t allow myself to perpetuate that negative female stereotype, even if it would probably get me excused. But I really needed to cry.

Next to me, the two jurors were confused. The woman asked me what was happening. I tried to explain it to her and the man on my right, but I knew that they would both be excused for their thickly accented English. I could understand them, but for two days I had watched both judges and lawyers awkwardly avoid questioning them for fear of not understanding the responses. The woman was ahead of me, and indeed she was excused. I gave my excuse. Although it is personal, I will explain that my excuse involved my concern over my job security and my family. The judge condescendingly explained that my employer could not hold jury duty against me. No, of course, legally, they could not. I’m not a moron. But I am also not naive enough to expect that so much time off wouldn’t influence them. He said “I’ll write you a note for work. I’ll see you at 1:30.”

The judge’s dismissal of my excuse stung, but I felt comfortable that he was equally dismissive and abrupt with the rest of the still-packed courtroom. As I walked to meet my husband for lunch, all I could think was why didn’t I keep my mouth shut yesterday and get picked for the 4 day criminal trial so I wouldn’t be here.

As I returned to the courtroom, I sat on a bench and buried my head in my notebook to work on some meditation. Over and over I wrote “I can only live in the present. The present is beautiful. Anxiety about it won’t affect the future. The only thing I own are my actions and all actions have consequences.” Thich Nhat Hanh was helping me through this. Then the judge entered and I looked around and my calming meditation dissolved around me. The courtroom was over half empty. The judge had excused over half of the prospective jurors. As I realized, a few just did not return, but only a handful.

Without discussing the particulars of the case, it involved a plaintiff who was engaging in behaviors that I would have a hard time overlooking. I knew I was going to be called into the jury box, just by the sheer fact of numbers. I stated that I could not be impartial and I was excused. Again, I had the wave of gratitude that I was not serving followed quickly by the guilt of getting myself excused. What kind of criminal justice system do we have? Don’t the defendants and plaintiffs deserve to have willing people serve on their juries, instead of people angry and bitter about being tricked into such a lengthy trial? I felt for the plaintiff in this case. I wanted him to be able to get a fair trial. But how can we expect that when we pay jurors less than minimum wage? This is what I have gained from my experience with jury duty. I am still struggling with my feelings of guilt and sadness two days later, but the only thing I own are my actions and all actions have consequences.