It’s 8:30 in the morning on a freezing day in February when you report to the Brooklyn Supreme Court for jury duty. Your summons tells you to enter through the court house’s front entrance on Court Street, but you see an entrance at the back and decide to take a chance and enter there, not before ascending and then descending the stairs twice in uncertainty. Finally you say to yourself, You’re not going to get arrested if you go in the wrong way, you idiot. So you go in and get on a short security line, hurriedly stuffing your bagel in your already overstuffed backpack, as someone walks down the line to check your summons, making sure you’re in the right place. When it’s your turn, you put your coffee on the table in case the security officer needs to inspect it for small weapons, place your backpack on the conveyor belt, unzip your coat, and walk through the metal detector. No beep, you’re free to go.
The security officer hands you your backpack and says, You don’t travel light. What do you have in there, rocks?
No, you say, just books. This is not entirely true. You also have a bagel, your computer, a power cord, a phone charger, the special kind of marker pens that you like, and a fruit cup you impulse-bought at the deli in case you need a snack later. You smile at the officer, pick your coffee up from the table, and read the sign that tells you to go upstairs to Room 205.
You enter the enormous room and find a seat that looks non-threatening: close to an outlet but not right next to it, near some people who look like they might watch your bag and not steal your wallet if you need to go to the bathroom. You pull out one of the two graphic novels you brought with you but don’t open it. Instead, you text your friends with whom you were out last night. You use your book as a sort of plate for your bagel, which you eat quickly even though it’s under-toasted and has too much cream cheese.
This is a busy court house, a sort of authority figure in a dapper suit says from a dais. He talks for a long time and says, during the course of his speech, some approximation of the following things:
Most of you will end up being chosen for a trial.
You will be dismissed at 5 o’clock. Now, don’t YOU tell ME that you gotta leave at 2 o’clock cause you gotta be home to cook dinner. Unless you’re chosen for a trial, you will stay here until 5 O’CLOCK.
No tweeting, Facebooking, saying anything on social media about the details of any case. If you do any of that, we can tell. I know you think it’s impossible, but we have our ways. [Looks down at screen, presumably.] SEVENTEEN of you have posted something on Twitter or Facebook since I started talking. Let’s see. Oh, here’s a good one. Hell no hell no hell no I ain’t stayin here till 5 o’clock they be trippin. #juryduty #hellno
At least 100 people who have reported to jury duty believe that they do not have a basic understanding of the English language. What happens to those people, you never find out. At least 40 believe that they have reported on the wrong day, though each of them in turn are humiliated by the dapper presider over the central jury room, who examines their summons documents and, into the microphone, announces that they have indeed reported on the correct day.
Last night, your friend told you about how he reported for jury duty a few months ago and his name was never called so he just got to go home and got credit for reporting and won’t be called in Brooklyn for another eight years. You hope so badly that this happens to you. But they’ve started calling groups of people to be interviewed and you’re worried. You’re so, so worried that your name will be next.
At 11 o’clock, you hear your name read over the loudspeaker. You’re actually surprised that you hear it because one of your biggest fears up until this point this morning was that you wouldn’t hear it called and that you would get in trouble. Trouble, to you, is an undefined term, but perhaps involves getting arrested, or at least getting a stern talking-to by someone in uniform. Getting a stern talking-to by someone in uniform is, by the way, how one of your favorite sexual fantasies begins. Anyway, you report to Room 7, along with about twenty other people, all of whom look like they believe they are about to be executed.
You’re sitting next to the wall in one of the hard plastic chairs trying not to touch the person sitting next to you, who is uncomfortably close. It’s not their fault, though. There are too many chairs and too many people for this small room. You’re already sweating when the lawyers enter the room, armed with legal pads. One of them is lean, with dark, graying hair and a long face adorned with a crooked nose. He shuffles sideways behind the table at the front of the room and sits down. The other lawyer is pink-faced and silver-haired with the look of a former high school football player who spends his early mornings at the gym. His suit is tailored to accentuate his upper body. He addresses the group first.
He is the plaintiff’s lawyer and first, he shares information about the nature of the case, which will be brought to trial a week from today. His client was injured in a construction accident. It had been decided at an earlier date that the fault lies with the defendant. This upcoming trial is damages only, meaning that the jury will decide how much money to award the plaintiff for his injuries and medical costs, his pain and suffering and his loss of income. He tells you that they estimate the trial to last between ten and fifteen business days, though it could be shorter or longer. They will pick six jurors and three alternate jurors.
Then the other lawyer, the defendant’s counsel, speaks. He tells you that he understands that no one wants to be chosen for a jury, but that our justice system wouldn’t work if citizens didn’t perform their civic duty. If you are chosen, he says, you may find that you get satisfaction out of serving on a jury. You may even form lifelong friendships with your fellow jurors. He’s seen it happen before. He thanks you on behalf of his client and tells you that he and Plaintiff’s Counsel will review the questionnaires that all of the prospective jurors have filled out and will return in a moment to begin jury selection.
Yours is the third name called and so you briefly become Juror #3. You are asked to sit in the first row along with five others. They question each of you in succession. The first prospective juror is about your age, in his mid-twenties. He is a TV production coordinator. You find that he is extremely opinionated and refuses to answer questions because of some, in your opinion, very confusing convictions, such as his having a moral quandary with personal injury lawsuits even though he stated on his questionnaire that he doesn’t know anyone who has been involved in a lawsuit. The lawyers ask to speak with him outside and when he returns, he looks smug and you think, Great, my chances of getting picked just got a little bit higher.
The second person questioned is seated next to you and you find that she’s also around your age, a former public servant who now works for a corporation, and she really wants to be on the jury. Like, she’s trying to get chosen. She tells the lawyers several times that she doesn’t have any issues because being a juror is her civic duty. OK, you think, keep talking like this. She has no personal issues, no bias, no personal history that relates this case. When they’re done with her, you feel better, though you are also very nervous because you suddenly remember that you’re a terrible liar.
“I see here that you studied history,” Plaintiff’s Counsel says to you, pointing with his pen at the spot on your questionnaire where you wrote down what you studied in college. “What kind of history?”
“Mostly European,” you say, as European history was indeed your concentration, though if you thought it appropriate you might have told him that your specific interest lies in the British Isles, particularly the decline of the British aristocracy, which you think is what you would have studied if you had gone to grad school. But you didn’t go to grad school. You got a job that led to a series of other jobs, which added up to a career. A career that you don’t give a shit about, you’ve lately been realizing. But it allows you to live. In Brooklyn. And suddenly you’re starting to see how every choice you’ve ever made has led you to this jury selection panel.
“Did you ever study American history?” Plaintiff’s counsel asks. You tell him that you did but with kind of a bitchy tone because you think the way he asked the question was condescending.
“Well, did you know that our great president Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer?”
“I did,” you say, giving him your best tight-lipped smile to make sure that he knows how fucking annoyed you are. He goes on with some bullshit about the institution of the law in our country and you just zone out because this guy is trying to make you like him and make you think he’s smart but you find him to be blatantly manipulative and smarmy.
As you’re questioned about real things that relate to the case over the next half hour or so, you reveal that your father is a litigator who represents large insurance companies, that you do in fact know a little bit about at least one type of surgery that will be discussed in the case, that you’re starting a brand new job next week and your first day is Monday, and that you guess you’re pretty sure that you don’t have any significant biases that would relate to this case. You think your chances of being chosen out of this group are good, but not too good. There’s a chance that they won’t want you and will pick one of these other people in your demographic.
The lawyers step out to discuss the six people they’ve questioned. When they return you feel the beginning of an anxiety-related headache, like everything you’ve been worried about has become material and is pressing down on your brain. One of them states briefly that you shouldn’t be offended if you’re not chosen, it’s just that you’re not right for this particular jury and you might be chosen for another. Jesus Christ, you think, who would be offended except for the perky girl next to me who will probably kill herself if she’s not selected for a jury today?
“Miss Flannery,” one of the lawyers says. “And Miss Jones. You have been selected for this jury. Please follow the court officer to the empaneling area, where you will be sworn in.”
Your heart is beating quickly and you’re shaking your head and you think you say something like “Ugh I fucking knew it” out loud and with trembling hands you open up your backpack and shove the book you’ve been reading inside before throwing it over your shoulder and following a person in a uniform to an office window, where a clerk sits, talking and laughing with someone seated at a desk behind him.
The lawyers are there and they hand your juror information card to the clerk and one of them says, “Miss Flannery will be Juror #3 and Miss Jones will be Juror #6.” You look behind you at the other juror, an elderly woman wearing a round felt hat that perfectly accentuates the roundness of her face and body.
“You know that they move up, right?” the court officer asks. “Miss Flannery is the first chosen so she’s Juror #1. Miss Jones is Juror #2.”
And with that, you’re sworn in by the clerk and told to report back to the courthouse a little over a week later, three days after you start your new job. When you walk outside, you feel your eyes well up with tears. You think you’re probably crying, though you can’t be sure because it’s been so cold and windy that you cry anytime you’re outside anyway. You take your phone from your pocket and dial your father’s office number. When he picks up you say, “Dad, I was picked.” And he says, “I knew you would be.”