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Smith: The American tradition of jury duty

By J.D. Smith

From the Headwaters of Dry Creek

Published on February 16, 2018 10:35AM

J.D. Smith

J.D. Smith

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I am rolling toward service to my country as a prospective juror while my right leg feels as though there is a high-voltage buzzer strapped to its instep. I am grouchy and sore. Why me? Why should I waste a day of my life in support of the American judicial system when I don’t believe it is fair? I should’ve opted out. I can barely walk. I hope I don’t collapse in a screaming fit in the courtroom. Oh, woe, pitiful me.

That is when the Great Spirit moves in to call my bluff. As I begin to chant Tuesday’s mantra, “nolite iudicare ut non iudicemini,” (“Judge not that ye not be judged”, Mathew 7.1) a snow-white raven soars up from the borrow pit and flies parallel to the pickup truck.

My brain vacillates between “I must be getting too close to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation” and “This is a clear sign that I should fast for 20 days while flogging myself with willow sticks,” then the medicine bird performs an in-flight shimmy, shimmy cocoa bop, shakes the frost from its feathers and emerges as a regular black raven. Things might not be all that bad after all. At least I didn’t sleep under a tumbleweed blanket last night like the bird did, and it looks as though the diet can wait until tomorrow.

My first thought when I hobble into the courthouse is “Wow, I’m glad that I am not the janitor in this joint.” Everything is too new and shiny and waaaay clean. The floors are tiled in pink marble, the curved banisters are oaken, the informational papers on the bulletin boards are level and plumb, and even the glass partitions around the metal detector are spotless.

Note to government architects: If you wish to serve regular people, then use people-friendly building materials. I and millions of others would prefer linoleum and pine wood, maybe a bullfight poster or two.

By 8:30, we are twenty disgruntled citizens sitting on hard metal chairs in a space that is smaller than the restroom. The guy over there is reading “Freakonomics.” The woman on my left is chatting with her friend about her sister’s job in the trailer factory. The guy on my right keeps checking a wristwatch that is running ten minutes faster than mine. A young fellow along the far wall is wearing a total NASCAR outfit with sponsorship patches sewn down both legs. The woman beside him is snapping Juicyfruit and pushing back her cuticles with a paper clip.

A power-suited woman passes out three sheets of copy paper and one cheap ballpoint to each of us. The forms ask whether we wish to donate our mileage payments (27 cents per) and daily stipends ($25) back to the state of Oregon. In a pig’s eye.

We go through a singlewide door into a brand new courtroom. I can smell the carpet adhesive. Seated at a conference table is a brown-skinned fellow in a black vinyl jacket wearing earphones.

On either side of him are a short man whispering into a microphone and a man in a brown tweed sports coat who is studying a clipboard. At another table are two guys whose skin tones look as though they sleep in hotel barrooms.

We are seated on long benches in the peanut gallery. All stand as the judge climbs up to his bench, a padded chair with six inches of headroom between his comb-over and the tile ceiling. He thanks us for coming and briefs us about the issue.

This is to be a civil case. The guy in the black coat claims that his Toyota Tundra was stolen then set afire in a field not far from the courthouse, a total ruin. The insurance company has refused to pay for his claim so he has brought suit against the company in the amount of $22,000 to pay for the truck. Does any of us know the plaintiff? No. Does any of us know any of the attorneys involved in the case?

When the tweed-coated lawyer for the plaintiff stands and turns to smile at the jury, I know that I won’t be serving on this panel. I recognize him. We spent a recent Sunday in a friend’s media center watching the Vikings get their butts handed to them. I confess to the judge that I have a friendly basis with the attorney for the plaintiff. Soon I can limp back to my Tylenol stash.

First though, we must be questioned by both sides. The plaintiff’s representative asks if any of us have been burned by an insurance company, (two yesses) whether we have any bones to pick with the migrant worker program (no response), whether we have ever had a car stolen (Mr. NASCAR says twice).

The insurance company guy leads with a cheap shot, the disclosure that the plaintiff is an illegal alien. The guy beside me with the runaway Timex grunts under his breath. Then he asks if any of us feels like there are too many frivolous lawsuits being filed (two), whether any of us are customers of his insurance company (one, former), whether any of us is a certified locksmith (nope), and if any of us know each other (several point at each other and say things like “I buy my tires from him” or “She and I play cards on Thursdays).

After half an hour of this, the judge calls the lawyers into his chambers, where they will attempt to pick 12 from 20. The plaintiff sits with his hands folded on the table. His interpreter leaves for a drink of water. The second guy at the insurance table yawns, stands and stretches. The rest of us sit and stare at nothing until the court reconvenes and 12 new jurors are identified and assigned, by number, their seats in the jury box.

The Great Spirit is with me. The jury is sworn in, and the judge dismisses eight of us. I don’t know how the case ended, but my leg didn’t hurt nearly as badly on the way out of the building.

J.D. Smith is an accomplished writer and jack-of-all-trades. He lives in Athena.


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