The latest addition to my extensive palmares.
I participated in small-d “democracy” yesterday, having been summoned to jury service in El Paso County’s Fourth Judicial District.
Now, I ain’t lyin’ to anyone here. I spoke very many bad words — and loudly, too — when I got the summons. I repeated them, albeit in different order, when I rang up the court Wednesday night and found out that yes, I was required to appear at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.
I walked downtown instead of cycling (you don’t have to lock up a pair of Sauconys, wear a helmet or carry a pump and spare tube). En route I saw a cat perched on a rooftop, a bathtub full of flowers and a bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale perched upside down on a brick wall. When I walked into the jury room “There Must Be Some Misunderstanding” was playing. All omens, no doubt. Of what, I had no idea.
Three judges had cases on the white board, so I read a little Zen while cooling my heels (“A day of no work is a day of no eating,” said Huai-hai, first to establish a Zen monastery in China). A clerk erased first one case, then a second, and I was thinking I might get sprung in time to enjoy a nice long bike ride.
Nope. The third case was the charm, and our jury questionnaires went upstairs. After a bit half of us were cut loose and the rest of us paraded upstairs for a grilling by the judge, the prosecution and the defense.
We numbered 14 and the case (driving under restraint) only needed six jurors, so I figured my chances of liberation were still pretty good, seeing as I am a journalist of dubious repute and a renowned scofflaw with a long, well-documented history of traffic violations, all of which I cheerfully confessed.
Nope. Selected. Balls, I thought. The way this is going I’ll wind up foreman on the sonofabitch.
While some last-minute legal maneuvering took place, the six of us chatted in the jury room. Besides me, we had a Spanish teacher, two construction types (one unemployed and recovering from a workplace injury), a telephone-company retiree and a mortgage-loan person, our lone female). We discussed our jobs and the lack thereof, injury and recovery, TV shows, kids, spouses and pets, bicycling.
And then the judge popped in, doffed his robes and told us we were free to go. Seems the trooper who cited the defendant had made an audio recording of the traffic stop and neglected to mention it to the DA’s office. Judge, prosecution and defense all listened to it, the defense said it couldn’t proceed, and shazam: Continuance. Off you go.
Six hours after I walked into the courthouse I was walking home in 90-degree heat, thinking about what the judge had said. He told us that it’s easy to feel cynical about the state of the nation, to be discouraged at the incessant mudslinging that has replaced political action, to wonder when you vote whether it really makes any difference.
When you serve on a jury, he said — even if you don’t actually get to hear the case — you are participating in an act of patriotism, small-d democracy in its purest form, the sort envisioned by the Greeks. A group of strangers convenes on behalf of the common good, listens, decides and disperses. There is no question that your vote makes a difference, your voice is heard.
True, the process was cumbersome. A couple dozen folks had their schedules upended for an hour or two — or six — and driving under restraint is not exactly the stuff of a “Law and Order” episode. The defendant looked vaguely disreputable, the way I did not so long ago; ponytail, beard, sunglasses.
Still, it was a reminder that the the least of us can go toe to toe with The Man if he has the balls for it, and that the State is not infallible. Call it a six-hour civics refresher. I even got a diploma. They misspelled my name.