I’ve been summoned for jury duty in New York. Happens every six years. Although it eats up precious time, it’s an amazing opportunity to rub shoulders with New Yorkers from totally different walks of life, and also to catch a glimpse of the wheels of formal governance as they turn.
The assembly room was in a fairly anonymous office building downtown. I sat down in one of the only available chairs, next to a guy dressed head to toe in fatigues with a tissue stuffed up one of his nostrils and a cap pulled down over his eyes. He didn’t seem to be feeling the civic love. Shortly after I arrived, a court clerk picked up a microphone and began playing M.C., explaining that we were in the “civil term” of New York Supreme Court lawsuits. No criminal cases, in other words.
The opening ceremonies really began, however, with a film that kicked off with a man being drowned in a medieval European trial by ordeal. The film then went on to trace a linear narrative of progress up from such barbarism in which the jury figured ever more centrally in the dispensation of justice and the maintenance of democracy, from Charlemagne’s blatantly biased jurare to the Zenger trial in colonial America that established jury independence to the admission of women to juries following World War II. The film interestingly also focused on the trial as a performative site, with various dramatis personae and other elements of dramatic structure such as conflict and resolution. The rousing conclusion of the film suggested that jury service is our “opportunity to seize power,” which begged the question of why we are only entitled to power every six years.
During my first day, jurors were called for three different trials. I was ineligible for the first two since I work for the city of New York, which was being sued by someone in the cases under consideration. The third trial, for which I was picked along with around thirty other people, involved a lawsuit over asbestos poisoning. This would have been very interesting to be involved with, but we were warned that it would take approximately four weeks. At that point, everyone except six people in the jury pool begged off. So it seems that in really complex cases only people who are unemployed, retired, or otherwise unoccupied are really able to mete out justice. This rather undermines the claims about the representative character of juries that were so carefully set out in the film screened during our introductory ceremonies.