Civic Duties

This week I had jury duty, or, more accurately, I was summoned to a court to sit in a room filled with potential jurors, hoping not be chosen.

Welcoming me to town was an irritable and officious parking attendant who set down his newspaper and came out from his kiosk to chide me because I didn’t know I was supposed to hold up my summons at the entrance. Then he came out again, even more ruffled, because I had backed my car into a parking space, which apparently is not allowed. He seemed disproportionately annoyed about everything, but I resisted the impulse to growl back. He was, after all, an old guy with a boring job. So instead, I handed him a tangerine and wished him a good day, and I hope that this will have a ripple effect and there will soon be world peace.

We sat through an orientation about jury duty and what an edifying experience it is, then were led to another building, where we lined up to go through security, removing belts, cell phones, and keys, walking through a scanner. “It’s just like at the airport,” someone said, “except we aren’t going anyplace fun.”

“Let’s all be positive about this,” suggested a woman in line behind me, to no one in particular. “Our attitudes are contagious. Let’s turn this into a good experience. We don’t need more cynicism.”

She was right. Jury duty is one of those things that are largely defined by how we approach them. It is never convenient, and there is no one present who would not prefer to be doing something else, but it’s a small service, really, for the rights and privileges of living in a democracy. I still hoped I wouldn’t be chosen, but I decided to accept my fate with a sense of duty and dignity.

It seemed like an unusually long selection process. The judge and the lawyers introduced themselves, and prospective jurors were given an opportunity to request that the judge excuse or defer them from service. The judge was reasonable but stern; a few were allowed to leave, and a few sat back down, disappointed. We were told a little bit about the case, and then twelve people were called to the front. There were explanations and admonitions, questions and cross-questions, folks excused and replaced. We listened to thought-provoking discussion along with stretches of get-me-outta-here tedium (I hate to sit still) and then proceedings broke for a recess when I am sure most of us would have preferred to just get through and wrap up. We were called back for a second day.

But you know? If I am ever charged with an offense and subject to a jury trial, I am grateful to know how thorough and careful the process is, and how diligent the effort to be fair. And it was humbling to see so many citizens taking time out from their regular routines and responsibilities, taking their civic duty seriously. They were young and old, and from all kinds of work backgrounds: a computer technician, a lumberyard worker, a fire fighter, a manager of a fast food place, a retired teacher, a retired car dealer, a retired pastor. They seemed thoughtful and articulate, honest and respectful. I was impressed.

So all in all, it was a positive experience. And I think this has to be the new civics, the new way of living in a democracy: engaged, attentive, willing to step up, not cynical. A year after the debacle of the 2016 election, we saw glimmers of hope on Tuesday in polls nationwide that America is not going to be defined by divisiveness and hatred. We don’t need perfection. We need decency. Democracy is us.

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