The first thing I learned about jury duty, that most unloved of civic obligations, is that the state of North Carolina has rebranded it “jury service.”
I received my first call to such service in June with a jury summons, which advised me to report to the Durham County courthouse on a Tuesday morning in August. On Monday night, I made the first cut by calling a hotline, where a recording told me that I was, indeed, needed the next day. In the morning, I showed up to the clerk’s office on the fifth floor with about 100 others. We watched a video that explained the difference between district and superior court and the (non-) difference between jury duty and service. We raised our left hands, swore ourselves in.
This being Durham, there were a couple of murder cases looking for jurors. Fortunately, about 50 of us were sent to a civil case instead. Again, this being Durham, a medical malpractice case needed jurors.
After trooping into a fifth-floor courtroom, we were greeted with the unsettling sight of all the lawyers turned in their chairs to smile at usand scope us. We were the raw recruits for a war the lawyers had been fighting for years, a war that we couldn’t understand fully, that we didn’t ask to be part of, but that could not be fought without us.
I felt like a fish that was getting caught in smaller and smaller nets. After half a day of voir dire, about seven or eight jurors were seated, and another 15 or 20 had been excused. My name finally came up, and after being questioned by attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defendants, I was deemed suitable. I became Juror No. 4.
By the next morning, the dozen jurors, plus an alternate, had been assigned red badges that entitled us to looks of pity or awe from strangers on the street and to speedier egress through security.
The jury was composed of six men and six women, from three or four walks of life. We didn’t know each other before the trial, but we found things to discuss. Given the circumstances, the scarcity and cost of childcare became a popular theme. When we’d exhausted that topic, we calculated our earnings: $12 a day for showing up, $20 a day if you end up on a jury, $40 a day if the trial goes beyond five days.
The trial lasted for nine days, and I actually enjoyed the experience. The case was interesting, and each side had a compelling argumenta necessity, really, for the case to end up before a jury. Our judge was a grandfatherly type who injected levity at appropriate times and scheduled the breaks so that we never had to sit still in the courtroom for more than 90 minutes. He kept his courtroom so cold that, from the second day, jurors were wearing long sleeves, sweaters and fleece jackets.
The memory of jurors bundled up against the elements to bravely dispense justice gives me a better rebranding idea than jury service: the jury quest, perhaps?