It is Tuesday morning in Holy Week and my mood is appropriately somber. Not, I fear, out of piety, but because I have just arrived at the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, to begin a stint on jury duty. The administrative judge of the court bids me and the two hundred other Manhattanites gathered in the Jury Assembly Room an avuncular welcome. He tells us how grateful the people of New York are that we have agreed to serve this important civic function, though he adds, with a practiced smile, that if we hadn’t agreed we would be paying $1,500 fines. I am not amused. (And I learn later that the fine is only $25
0.) My surly mood reflects my memory of the last time I served, some three years ago. It was one of the more frustrating experiences of my life. I spent the better part of two weeks not getting appointed to a jury. I wandered from courtroom to courtroom, assigned to one panel of prospective jurors after another, but the results were always the same”excused without cause. It seems I am not good jury material, especially from a defense lawyer’s point of view. I am an over-educated white middle-aged male”the type, apparently, most likely to side with the prosecution. Things are made worse by the fact that I work for the Institute on Religion and Public Life and am editor of a religious journal. This reinforces the defense’s suspicion that I am stern on law-and-order-they hear religion and imagine the Christian Coalition. At the same time, the religion factor raises questions for the State: I might just be one of those liberal Christians who identify religion with the Higher Niceness. Either way, I’m too risky. By the end of that last stint, frustration had begun to edge into full”blown paranoia. I took the repeated rejections personally. What was wrong with me? Why didn’t they want me? I imagined desperate rhetorical strategies for approval. Look, I’m really very fair-minded. I won’t prejudge your clients (even if they do all look guilty). I’m a Libra, the one represented by scales”as in justice. Give me a chance. Please . But the lawyers remained merciless in rejection, and my mental pleading gave way to contempt. All right, you lowlife ambulance chasers. I know a conspiracy against justice when I see one. You’re excluding me just to protect that obviously guilty bunch of sociopaths you’re stooping for. Forget Twelve Angry Men: Henry Fonda was a liberal wimp and the kid he got off probably went out and mugged little old ladies. By the time I was released from duty, I was in very bad shape. So, three years later, the gratitude of the people of New York for my anticipated service does not impress me. Nor is my mood improved by the presence of my fellow would-be jurors. As I recall from last time, there’s a big gender gap in our patterns of social interaction. Most of the men sit in wary solitude, while many of the women are forming lifetime relationships with people they met ten minutes ago. At the time of my first service, a woman at the office explained that one of the redeeming features of jury duty is that you get to meet so many new people. “Why would you want to do that?” I thought. No wonder defense lawyers prefer women to men as jurors (the weaker the case, one suspects, the stronger the preference). Women obviously lack the sense of stony isolation that is essential to the judicial temperament. A young woman next to me is expatiating to two women behind us on how she hates to go back home (she keeps calling it “middle America”) because the people there are so narrow-minded. “I mean, they’ve never really met homosexuals. My hairdresser is my best friend. Though he’d never admit it if he could see my hair today.” I silently agree on the last point, and begin to ponder how I can fit the fine for not serving into my budget.
But now it is late Wednesday morning, and my mood has improved wonderfully. First, the woman with the hairdresser friend is seated way across the room. Second, we have been informed that it is now the normal policy of the court that those who don’t get picked for a trial within three days are let off. Finally, and most promisingly, there were very few calls for jury panels yesterday. Things were so slow that they gave us an extra half-hour for lunch. (The semi-officious clerk announced our good fortune in the manner of a medieval lord graciously dispensing a benefaction.) To add to my growing sense of well-being, I found a nice Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street a few blocks behind the courthouse. After lunch, there were no calls for juries at all, and the clerk, beaming with generosity, let us go an hour early. I am coming to understand that I have stumbled, entirely by accident, into the ideal time to be called for jury service. This is Holy Week for Christians. One does not expect Christian judges or lawyers to want to spend Good Friday in court. (It is not a civic holiday here.) This is also”and even more significant to my immediate situation”the beginning of Passover for Jews. As is often noted, there are more Jews in New York than in any other city in the world. And, in the current parlance, they are “overrepresented” in the judicial system”as a glance at the roster of judges posted in the courthouse lobby quickly confirms. Tonight is the beginning of Passover, and tomorrow is the officially recognized holiday itself. I begin to count on slow times at the New York City courthouse. Sure enough, we are dismissed for the day at noon.
Thursday morning, and I am awash in interreligious good feelings. For this group, it is our third and almost certainly final day of service. This is good for the Jews, I think, and also for everyone else. At 11:00 a.m., the clerk, now beloved by us all, begins the process of dismissing us from duty. (We all have to get our little pieces of paper certifying that we have served and protecting us from recall for a minimum of two years.) By 11:45 I am on the street. As I head for my third straight lunch at the little Italian restaurant, I am filled with a sense of pride over a civic duty honorably fulfilled. My faith in the legal system has been restored. I look up at the sentence carved on the courthouse facade: “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.” I couldn’t agree more.