I am sitting at the back of a small room in a large federal court house, my palms sweaty and wishing I had better prepared. As in, I should have notified my work that the small print, which I read late last night, said “prepare to be here the entire day.” My summons paper said be there at 8:15 and I thought, in the manner of thinking I prescribe to, that this meant I would be out and back to work by the time my shift started at 9. I thought. I assumed. So wrong.
Instead it’s now 8:15 and not everyone has assembled yet. I feel my heart rate quicken to a yellow flashing warning light on my retinal dashboard, followed by a flash of panic when the court reporter appears and, all cheery, bouncy, and energetic, states that there will be a 25 minute film followed by an orientation. Orientation? I’ve been at places where orientations lasted all week! Maybe it’s time to fake a heart attack and get stretchered out of here. My heart seems on the verge of this anyway. I sigh deeply and let my foot twitch like mad, a nervous squirrel in a nut famine.
We watch the film about the glories of constitutional rights and the respectful and awesome weight of responsibility to sit on a jury. The Supreme Court justices speak to us from the past, sober voices heavy on rights, patriotism, and justice for all. I respect all of this but my patients are waiting and I didn’t foresee this coming. Coffee perks in the corner and snacks sit waiting for a brave soul to grab and growl. No one moves.
Then there’s another speech by the court clerk and finally, at 9:25, all 38 of us line up in order. I have sticker number 17 on my chest, juror number 17. We wait for security to open the door to the courtroom. We shuffle uneasily, nervously, look around quietly, watch the clock.
The door finally opens and the security officer quietly motions us to follow him. He directs jurors one through 12 to the jury box, the rest of us to chairs and benches at the front of the visitor’s section. Waiting for us on our designated seat is a large paddle with the juror number on it. I pick mine up, heft it for weight, and sit down to eye the gray-haired judge, sitting up front, black-robed, watching us with interest through his large spectacles. Actually everyone is watching us with what I interpret is curious interest. We are, after all, the ones to decide the case, right? The defense is interested. The prosecutors are interested. The defendant is sitting there, long hair falling over his eyes, interested.
The judge begins his preamble, lecturing on the jury process, the rights of the American people and then describes the case in front of us. Meanwhile, an elderly prospective juror states flatly that he’s 85 years old and can’t hear a single thing his honor has said so far. The judge grins bemusedly and asks him to be re-seated near the front. This further delays the process as chairs are arranged for him to sit close the bench where, he states fifteen minutes later, he still can’t hear a single thing. He is dismissed and excused from jury duty, the judge rightly perceives, he judges as it were, that this prospective juror may not add much to the process as hearing is essential. The elderly fellow says “What’s that?” and everyone giggles nervously.
I sit here marinating in a stew of anxiety because, having never done this sort of thing before, I don’t know if I’m going to have to raise my paddle and interrupt the judge in mid-preamble, jump to my feet dramatically (“objection, your honor!”) or otherwise get his attention. My fears are allayed when he states that, starting with juror number one, everyone will have a chance to say their name, marital status, occupation and whatever else they fancy. This calms me for some reason. I will have my day in court, it appears.
I let my foot twitch and shake at will while listening to each juror state their stats. The judge asks them questions based on a previously filled out questionnaire. Then it’s my turn. I state the required points: name, status, kids, and job.
The judge looks at me over his glasses and says, I have a couple of questions for you. I nod expectantly. He asks me a question regarding some past family history and wonders if my experiences with the judicial system would cloud or affect my judgement in this case in any way. I say, “No, your honor, I don’t believe so.” Ok, good, he nods approvingly. Next, I see you have checked yes under religious scruples. Tell me more. I say, “That’s correct, I am an Anabaptist Mennonite Christian and don’t feel I can sit in judgement of a fellow man, per Matthew 7.” He looks at me for a minute and then with his hands raised, draws four points in the air. He outlines the requirements of the US constitution and the ultimate goal of jury duty, which he feels is not so much to judge my fellow man but to rather uphold the constitution. He wonders if this would change my mind. I say, “No your honor, it would not in any way change my mind.”
The judge moves that I be excused and the prosecution and defense concur. I gather my papers, lay down my paddle of distinction, and make a beeline for the door. I do not look back. I get to my vehicle to find I am shaking slightly and realize my stress level must have been rather high.