Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Duty Calls

The summons came in the mail at the worst possible time: 14 clients a week, massive Spring events for my administrative job, preparation for a workshop on Ethics I'm conducting in April...throw a month of jury duty into the mix and life suddenly went from "overwhelming" to "batshit crazy."

My initial impulse was to use my children as an excuse to get out of serving - until I remembered that I'm not the type of person who uses her children as an excuse. I also remembered that I believe in the legal system, or at least I believe in the idea of the legal system, of which jury service is a fundamental component. Also, I like to watch Law & Order and figured I might see some hot prosecutor action.

So I reported for duty on the first Tuesday of March and made my way to the small room, the one without televisions, having recalled from my last experience with jury duty that the larger room quickly becomes crowded with the sounds of new best friends chatting, Judge Judy or Troy or Maleficent or whomever shouting and abusing and haranguing, people yelling into their cell phones, the Roni Deutsch commercial that runs an endless loop around the midday television shows. The small room, on the other hand, is quiet - at least in a relative sense (yes, I'm looking at you, Ms. I-Can't-Be-Bothered-To-Turn-Down-the-Volume-on-my-iPad-While-I-Play-Neverending-Games-of-Bejeweled-Blitz).

There's a digital screen at the front of the room that keeps track of how many cases are currently on the docket (like that word? I learned it watching Law & Order). Some mornings we walk in and the screen flashes the number 2 or 4 and everyone heaves a collective sigh of joy and relief; other days, like today, the number is much higher, and I watch as people slump down in their chairs, bracing themselves for the tedium. Most cases seem to plead out and every once in a while I hear delighted murmurs and look up to see that the number has shifted drastically downwards. When a case goes to trial and the judge needs a jury for voir dire, the clerk gets on the microphone to call the randomly selected and it is an incredibly Pavlovian phenomenon: after a couple of days the mere crackle of the microphone caused a visible stir in almost everyone around me.

I've been called to voir dire 3 times now. The first time, I got choked up when they swore us in; I was stunned and oddly moved by the sound of 50 strangers loudly and resolutely affirming that they solemnly swore to uphold the law. We live in a country where most folks don't know the words to the National Anthem and although I wouldn't call myself a patriot, there was pride and purpose in that room and it was hard not to get all worked up about it.

The case sucked, though: felony carnal knowledge of a juvenile. I hate to say it but I took one look at the guy and my perpetrator radar went off. There was no way I could have been impartial so when they went around the jury box and asked us each what we do for a living, I didn't feel too guilty when I told them I was a psychotherapist and they asked me if I thought I could be impartial and I hesitated for a moment. I was just being honest.

The next case was a home invasion, and my radar wasn't doing anything special. Still, when they asked me if I had any experience with home invasion I did not hesitate to give them both my own and my acquaintances' histories with that particular horror, and when they asked me if I could be impartial given those experiences, I hesitated, and for that I do feel a bit guilty. Granted, they likely wouldn't have picked me anyway, but that one was on purpose; I didn't want to get picked and I was playing the system.

The problem is really in the onerous nature of the commitment. In Orleans parish they require residents, when called, to serve jury duty for an entire month, 2 days per week. For many people that is a tremendous burden, and it manifests in the way people, or at least people like me, respond to the prospect of being detained. If I were called to jury duty for a couple of days or even a week, I imagine my willingness to give myself over to the legal system would dramatically increase; it's the prospect of an entire month of inconvenience that squelches my urge to serve. You see, even if you get picked and serve on a jury, you still have to report back for duty on your next scheduled day. At the voir dire for the home invasion trial, I sat next to a woman who had served on a jury until 10 p.m. the night before--and reported to the courthouse at 8 a.m. the next morning. I also sat in front of a man who, in the brief interlude when the judge stepped into chambers, proceeded to relate the details of his daughter's hysterectomy to the total stranger seated next to him - but that's another story.

Today, walking into the jury pool, I resolved to be less calculating, to give myself over to the system I supposedly espouse. I would NOT be calculating in my responses to voir dire inquiries; instead I would answer openly and spontaneously. I would NOT wish to be excused from the courtroom, but rather re-frame my thinking in terms of civic duty and pride of procedure. I would put my crazy commitments aside and focus on the matter at hand - that matter, of course, being justice, or the pursuit thereof. We shuffled into the courtroom and sat quietly for a few minutes while the judge fussed at the attorneys. I checked my phone for emails - I do have to work, after all - and just as the man next to me leaned over to ask if my phone was a Blueberry, the judge called a continuance and we were dismissed.

I can't say I wasn't relieved.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why Mardi Gras is Better Than Christmas (H/T Sydney Roux)

* Begging for toys at Christmas is considered gauche, but if a float rolls by and you don't scream and yell for beads and trinkets and just one more plastic cup to add to the collection that occupies approximately 3/4 of the space in your pantry, people might ask you if you're feeling alright.

* While I have heard that it can be hard to be a Jew during Christmas, during Mardi Gras that base is covered.

* You may be able to find a King Cake in December, but it's probably not as good as this or this or this.

* Sure, on Christmas morning you may find yourself lounging in your pj's a bit longer than usual, heck you might even indulge in a pre-brunch Mimosa, but Mardi Gras casts a lovely spell over the rhythms of daily life, for weeks on end. People tend to take vacations at Christmas, but during Mardi Gras we take sabbaticals. Baths are taken in the morning, so as not to interfere with parading. It's generally considered appropriate to consume alcoholic beverages before 9 a.m.--same goes for fried chicken and King Cake. Work, traffic, laundry, school, and pretty much every other activity of daily living stops about 5 days before Fat Tuesday, and at some point in that span of time between the halt of normal routine and the day we're supposed to repent and have our foreheads smeared with ashes, many of us will look down at our bare feet, or catch a glimpse of our face in a random rearview mirror, realize we've already been smudged, and consider our duty done.

* At some point during the Christmas season, the age-old dilemma about whether or not the Santa Claus myth counts as lying to your kids is bound to come up in conversation. During Mardi Gras there's no such moral ambiguity. Sure, you might have to make up some sort of story about the guy "taking a nap" on your front lawn, but trust me, that's definitely for the best.