|Fayette County Circuit Court, Lexington KY|
August jurors, your service is now complete. The Fayette Circuit Court appreciates your time and effort.And with these words I am honorably discharged by the friendly lady on the recorded juror hotline. I know I'll miss her when 4:30 rolls around. We've kept our date every Sunday through Wednesday all month long.
I was't particularly enthusiastic about being summoned. Believe me, I had other stuff to do. There is no convenient time for jury duty. Like voting or serving in the military or stopping to see if you can help at an accident; there are just certain things an honorable person does when neighbors are in need. That's why it isn't a job. It's a duty.
In spite of my apprehension, it was not that much of a burden at all. I missed three days work in August. I never was chosen to sit on a trial. Considering what little I heard, I was glad of that. Abused kids. Car crashes. Children testifying against their foster parents. Doctors testifying against one another. In many ways, it's a terrible reaponsibility. Others stayed for the trials, I was always thanked and dismissed. So while I didn't get to spend anytime in the jury box, or in the back room with 12 angry men and women, I did get to watch the system work just a little. And I learned a lot.
Lawyers are pretty remarkable people. Yes, there are corrupt lawyers and greedy lawyers and crooks and dirt bags, just like in any other profession. But when it comes down to it, a lawyer's job is to protect people. The commonwealth's attorney is protecting people who are hurt by criminals, making sure that they have a voice. Defense attorneys are protecting people whose freedom the government is trying to take away. Are their clients guilty? That's not the point. The point is that somebody has to make it very hard for the authorities to take away your liberty or your life. It shouldn't be easy to grind someone up between the slowly turning wheels of justice.
Civil lawyers are a different breed: tort lawyers, shysters, "ambulance chasers": the names are not always kind. For some reason, when your practice is about money instead of criminals, your motives are viewed a little more skeptically. But just like in the criminal courts, civil lawyers are making sure that the government can't just snatch up your property and give it to someone else. And they are also making sure that if someone causes you pain and suffering, you have a chance to be heard, even if the people who have caused you harm are rich and powerful and backed by corporations and teams of legal experts who are paid to make you go away.
I know it doesn't always work the way it's supposed to. And I know that good people lose much too often. Still, having professionals who make it their business to give citizens a fighting chance against powers far greater than themselves, comforts me. And it makes me feel kind of bad about all those lawyer jokes. The good attorneys, and there are some great ones, have earned my respect.
The Jury is an amazing institution. I grew up watching Perry Mason, so I never really considered what a Jury meant the way I had to while I was explaining my absence to my friend from Africa. He didn't understand what I meant by "Jury Duty." "So do you stand guard? Do you just watch the judge like an audience?" he asked. "No. The judge is more like a referee. The judge is the one who makes sure everyone obeys the rules." Still, my friend was puzzled. "But what does the jury do while the judge is deciding who is guilty?" "No," I answered, "the judge doesn't decide that. The jury does." My friend was amazed. "Not the judge or the police? Just regular people?" He paused for a moment and looked out the window into the bright Kentucky afternoon. "That would be wonderful."
We didn't really talk much about how justice works where my friend comes from, but it did my cynical old liberal heart some good to see the idea of a trial by jury through his eyes. "Maybe," I thought, "America is a little more exceptional than I realized."
I don't think I'm being a Pollyanna about this. I know that there are innocent people in jail, and guilty people walking the streets and that far too often those things happen because somebody had the wrong colored skin or the right colored money. Everybody in the justice system isn't Perry Mason. some of them break the law, and I imagine a lot of them stretch it until just before it breaks. But having said all that, if I am ever accused of a crime, I hope there are good people willing to stand by me, hear my case, and judge me as fairly as they can.
Just a couple other things... There are way too many old white guys in the jury pool. I guess those are the people who register to vote and those are the people who have the time to serve, but if you are not an old white guy, you owe it to yourself and your community to make yourself available if you're called. It would help if more people registered to vote. It would also help if people realized how much their vote can count. I'm a Liberal in a state where many people think Jesus founded the Republican party. What I do in the booth isn't likely ever to help anyone be elected President. But on a jury, with an electorate of 12, my voice will always be heard.
Jurors could stand a little more education on the subject of decorum. I know that I'm sounding like Gramma Johnson here, but I think if there's a chance that you are going to be deciding to put someone in prison before the end of the day, you could at least put on something besides sweatpants in the morning. Dress clothes aren't always the most comfortable, but they are what we wear when there is something important going on. And being on a jury is important.
And finally, since I spent all those paragraphs praising their profession, may I just say that every lawyer I saw was a white man and a lot of them were - how do I say this? - not well put together. Most of them wore very nice suits. Many of them had weirdly chosen footwear. And a whole bunch of them had lousy haircuts. One was downright cartoonish. I'm not saying put on a show, but come on, guys, put on a little bit of a show, huh? Run a comb through that mop before you leave the house. Pick up a copy of GQ and figure out how you're supposed to knot that $80 silk around your neck. And as for your sense of humor? Well as a rule, we the jury find your jokes to be condescending and a little insulting, even if we are laughing to be polite.
The judges I saw were a much more diverse group: a white woman, an African American woman, and a white man. One wanted to be a stand-up (sit-down) comedian. One projected a kind of cool, slightly goofy demeanor. One ran a tight ship with professionalism and an attitude that elicited trust from me from the moment the bailiff called "All rise for the honorable...". I was encouraged by the people I saw in charge of our courtrooms. Even the goofy one. They took the job of jury selection seriously, and treated us with respect.
Finally, the Bailiffs. I mean please. How can you not love the Bailiffs? They are the humble stage managers who open the doors, arrange the chairs, call the room to attention, distribute the parking passes, and add a gentle air of professionalism to the whole scene. Like "Pops" the stage door guard who works at every Broadway theatre, the Bailiff is the one who has "seen em come and seen em go," who keeps people in line and follows them out of the room to make sure they are alright if they have a coughing fit. Bailiffs are sweet and a little comical and you hardly notice until you look twice that every one of them is wearing body armor. They may act like mother hens, but I couldn't help thinking that if they had to, they would put themselves between a shooter and anybody else in the room. That bullet proof vest was a constant reminder to me that this is a place where very important things happen, a place where people protect one another. A place where people do their duty.
Much as I'd have preferred to be in the swimming pool at the Y, it was an honor to be able to do my own duty for three days in August.