Certain rules of etiquette govern the receipt of a jury summons.
One must moan aloud when one pulls it out of the mailbox.
One must tender it to one’s supervisor as if it were a deceased squirrel and express personal regret for having brought this loss of productivity upon the company.
One must grouse about finding parking, and a seat in a crowded jury gathering room.
So, I fail at etiquette. I fail from thank-you notes and complicated table settings and the jury all-call response.
When a summons came for the third time in my life, I was thrilled – and not just because I would get at least two days off from writing this column. For your brief reprieve this month, gentle reader, you may thank the mighty Pierce County computer that snagged my data from the lists of residents who are registered to vote and licensed to drive.
I was thrilled at the chance to be part of one of the fairest judicial systems on the planet. It has its flaws, and some of them run deep. But it demands that the accused see the faces of the peers who will decide the verdict. It requires that those peers be accountable to each other, and to themselves. It’s a mental stretch for participants, and discussions that stretch us beyond preconceptions are good for the health of democracy.
We get to experience all that, even if we don’t serve on a jury.
The room where jurors get their instructions, is, arguably, the most interesting chamber on county property, starting with the briefing.
The opener, the civics-lesson video, slathered us with thanks and reassured us that we are upstanding citizens. Besides, it reminded us, if we didn’t report, we’d be committing a misdemeanor.
A Pierce County sheriff’s deputy with a briefcase followed. As is traditional with all Pierce County jury orientations, he opened with a bad joke, this one involving an ostrich.
Then he unlocked the valise to demonstrate the margin between judging and being judged. It’s the thickness of a ninja throwing star.
He’s baffled, he confided in us, by the things people think they can get past security scanners. The valise was packed with fake and real guns – both banned in the building – and switchblades, martial arts weapons and brass knuckles banned statewide.
Deputies, he explained, will confiscate the illegal weapons, and look into why someone is walking into the courthouse with them. Ditto the illegal drugs.
So warned, we hauled out our books and papers, then dropped into conversation with our neighbors.
We had differences of politics, faith, economics, color, age. The chats reminded us how pleasant new perspectives can be.
Commissioned salespeople had reported, along with people whose employers don’t pay them while they serve. These jurors’ $10 daily stipend would not cover their economic loss, and yet they came.
One woman, a relatively new citizen and a mother of two, reported for jury duty by 9 a.m., and her job as a retail checker for the night shift at 5 p.m. all week.
The computer picked us for case pools, and the lawyers had at us.
Had we ever been injured, or caused injury, in a car wreck? Had we, or someone dear to us, suffered domestic violence? What does “frivolous” mean? Must a victim cooperate with the prosecution if a case is to be valid? If we wake to a neighborhood covered in snow, do we assume it snowed overnight, or do we need more proof? Had we sued or been sued, and, if so, did we feel the process was fair? Would we hold it against the attorney if we didn’t like his tie? Do we believe that an injured person should be compensated for financial losses? For pain and suffering?
Politicians imprisoned in sound-bite campaigns might be heartened by the care with which prospective jurors responded. It was proof that Americans can think through complex questions and answer them with depth and honesty.
Jury-duty etiquette requires the lawyers, the judges, the court staff to assure us that if we are not chosen for a jury, it isn’t personal.
I wasn’t picked, but I am honored to have met our peers who were.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677