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Monday, January 31, 2005

Downtown, under oath

The interesting thing about waiting a couple of days to blog about an experience is that while you do lose some details, more often than not the details you lose are the kinda boring ones. Never has this been more true than a day of jury duty.

For those who have not had the pleasure, I can tell you that the LA Superior Court really does have a good system. All that week, I called into an automated number to find out if I was needed the next day. Monday thru Wednesday, I was in the clear -- Wednesday night, the machine told me to be there at 7:30 AM the next morning and to not wear a tank top.

If I made it through Thursday without being put on a jury, I would be free of my obligations to democracy for at least a year. If I didn't, I would spend up to ten business days in a cold sunless room listening to boring people talk. Tell me that doesn't sound like a game show.

Those jury wrangling folks are pretty smart, for what it's worth. I had to be downtown at 7:30 AM, but by 9 AM the jury room was packed, all the paperwork was done, and we were ready to go. And by ready to go, I mean "ready to sit around and be told how awesome jury duty is."

There were two videos about our civic responsibility, and then a judge came in and talked to us about our civic responsibility. But she was cool, because she told the story like it was a fairy tale. "Once upon a time, around 900 AD to 1100 AD in England, there was no law. Then the lords and barons and the king came and created laws, but sometimes the lords and barons wouldn't obey it, and thus the people decided that a jury system would be the best way to maintain order. And that's how we came up with the jury system."

I'm really not kidding. "What about the Magna Carta? What about the Greeks?" I nearly asked. But then I couldn't remember what the Greeks actually did. So I just kept reading my book.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by the way? Really as good as they say. I know, because I got to read it for about two hours before I was called for a jury pool.

My pool of jurors contained three social workers, two lesbians, and the owner of a Silverlake pizza place -- "Nicky D's Wood-Fired Pizza," he said under oath at least eight times. "Best pizza in town." (My sources believe that he was not perjuring himself.) There were about thirty of us, and everyone was interviewed about their jobs, their living situation, what they liked to do "for fun," and any past experience with the legal system, as a juror or otherwise. It's quite a way to be introduced to a group of people. One of the social workers, skinny and soft-voiced, had never served on a jury before, but "my uncle and brother were arrested... I don't really want to say why."

We broke for lunch.

The head juror wrangler had said, in a voice like a TV announcer, "Downtown is so beautiful right now," before telling us about all the different things we could do on our lunch break. You get an hour and a half for lunch if you're a juror, free parking, and free admission to the nearby museums. Jury duty? Is the life.

The courthouse was on 1st St., so I headed south, surrounded by people, stopping at Grand Central Market for a spinach empanada and a diet Coke. I ate as I walked down to 5th, the great Aztec temple known as the Central Public Library in my sights.

The librarians were able to find me a reference copy of Rope Burns by FX Toole, and with the twenty minutes I had left, I read quickly through "Million $$$ Baby," making notes for the next Bookslut column.

I scurried back to the courthouse, accomplished, ready to listen.

The older, heavier lady with the thick accent, when asked about the occupation of her husband: "He's retired... He's got the bipolar." Her past experience with the law: "My husband was accused of arson." When asked what she liked to do for fun: "Sew, cook, eat, and spend time with my family."

One man specified his occupation as manufacturing plasma. There's poetry in making blood for a living.

My favorite, though, was Sister Rahde, an adorable old lady with old lady hair and an old lady cardigan with a big flaming heart pin on it. After a long string of awkward questions ("I live in a convent... I do religious work... The people I live with also do religious work...") the judge finally asked if she was a nun. Bingo.

We were all given a questionnaire earlier in the day, fifteen questions regarding our abilities to obey the law and make fair judgments about the case. Most people, when asked if they had any yes answers to the questionnaire, said they knew someone in the legal profession or had participated in a lawsuit.

Sister Rahde, when asked about her answers to the questionnaire, started rattling off numbers. "Yes to number 2, 5, 6, 8..." Sister Radhe would not be able to give a person fair judgment because of their race, creed, color, or sexual orientation. Sister Radhe would not be able to consent to agreeing with the law regarding certain issues.

I bet Sister Rahde was a big fan of the lesbians.

Where was I, in all this? I was in the audience of the courtroom, watching as one by one, potential jurors were excused and reserve jurors were called from the audience to sit in the box and answer the questions. As the lawyers decided on their second round of purges, with only eight reserve jurors left, I and the three people sitting by me formed a little gang. We tried to guess who'd be cut next. We anticipated our future freedom.

And then the lawyers excused seven of the potentials, and the clerk started calling names, breaking up my posse, then calling up the others around me...

Until I sat alone, unnecessary. "Don't worry," the same judge from that morning, the one who'd told the fairy tale about the judicial system, called back to me. "We might still need you."

They didn't. But that was all right. I just sat in the cold courtroom, reading about New Orleans in the summertime. Listening with half an ear to other peoples' stories. Trying to guess who'd be best suited to bring justice to the serfs.

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