It’s said that justice deferred is justice denied. However, jury duty deferred, to paraphrase eminent American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, “totally rocks in a clear and present fashion.”
Actually, I was kind of looking forward to my week-long service in the Court of General Sessions (though I’d obviously prefer the Court of the Crimson King). I had been summoned to the Moss Justice Center along with about 200 others to provide a pool of potential jurors for the first term of the new year. I was proud to be doing my service as an American citizen and, not inconsequentially, eager to avoid citation for contempt of court.
I’ve always been something of a judgmental person, so this seemed like just the thing for me. I’d be spending four days away from the drudgery of the normal weekday, working the sensible hours of 9 a.m. till whenever we decided to convict somebody, then I’d still have half the day for napping. I’d be regally dispensing justice to all manner of York County miscreants and, in my occasional mercy, I might even decide to let a few of them live.
I made the 11.7-mile drive — at 36 cents a mile I’d be pocketing a cool $8.42 for the round-trip alone — through frigid weather and farmland out to the western part of the county. I arrived at the sprawling government complex, looking for signs to indicate where I was to park, and ultimately deciding I was probably more of a “visitor” than someone interested in “prison parking.”
I joined the others who were streaming into the modern facility, ready to do their part in maintaining law and order. We were supposed to be “petit” jurors, according to the green summons card we clutched in our hands, but it was obvious that holiday over-indulgence had boosted most of us to more of a plus-size range. I hoped the judge wouldn’t mind, because I could tell this was a bunch of people eager to dispense some serious justice.
As we entered the lobby, a large man in a suit made sure we were herded in the right direction. “Jury duty,” he bellowed repeatedly. “No cell phones.” (There went my plans to phone a friend should I be stuck in particularly difficult deliberation). We lined up in the hallway for what I presumed to be a trip through the metal detector. Instead, it was simply a brief logjam to pick up official badges before entering the large waiting room. I was a little taken aback at the lack of security but soon came to see that the surprisingly welcoming juror lounge, complete with magazines, vending machines and comfortable chairs, would convince any potential terrorists to rethink their plans.
The room was rapidly filling up, so I headed to the back and found a good spot next to the gum machine (gum is a very sober snack). Before I picked up Time magazine to learn more about the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, I took a few minutes to check out those around me. The group seemed like a reasonable cross-section of South Carolinians, though maybe a little on the white side. The guy across from me, immersed in his Field and Stream, looked like a hunter, at least I hoped that’s why he was wearing camouflage. A friendly businesswoman chatted with a short guy. An Asian man sat right next to me, even though there’s another open seat next to no one right over there, buddy. A student was reading the first few pages of a huge Ayn Rand book, probably not a good sign for the accused.
Finally, some official-looking folks came into the room and announced “please remove your hats.” Sounds like a judge or some other authority easily offended by headwear was about to appear. Instead, we get to meet David Hamilton, clerk of court, the personable young official who’d be telling us how soon we’d be raining down our guilty verdicts before heading back to our families.
After a brief welcome and a description of how he got such a sweet job, Mr. Hamilton took a decidedly apologetic tone.
“Looks like you’re getting a late Christmas present,” he said. “We got an email from the solicitor’s office late yesterday afternoon informing us that all the cases scheduled for this week’s docket have been resolved. You will all be dismissed for the week in just a few minutes.”
The crowd remained quiet but you could tell there was a great wave of relief, followed almost immediately by the question of why the hell they couldn’t have told us this before now. “There are these devises called telephones,” I wanted to point out. “You can use them to talk to people without making them drive 11.7 miles through 25-degree temperatures. Even the guy bellowing in the hallway has heard of them.”
Before he’d let us go, Mr. Hamilton had a few procedural issues he had to cover. We’d still be getting our $10 juror fee. Anyone needing a written excuse for work could see his assistant on the way out. Anyone whose summons had to be forwarded to a new address was warned their mileage reimbursement check could be delayed. Was there anyone who had really wanted to serve on a jury and would like to be considered for the next session? Surprisingly, about a dozen hands went up, though most were retracted when he added that they’d be paid only for the new session, not for today.
Finally, he said he wanted to acknowledge his staff for their work in this tremendous waste of time and money. He started introducing his assistants, almost like you’d expect Bruce Springsteen to break mid-concert to recognize the talents of Little Steven on guitar and the “Big Man” Clarence Clemmons on sax. I don’t think we were supposed to applaud, and we certainly couldn’t hold our cell phones high over our heads in silent tribute to their talents. He didn’t end these introductions with a rousing “let’s here it!” so we quietly gathered up our coats and prepared to leave.
I did regret in a fleeting way that I wouldn’t be getting an insider’s view of the American criminal justice system. I knew that would mean lots of waiting around and listening to boring judge talk and continuances and sidebars, but somewhere there’d be a nugget of justice to make me feel like I was making a difference. I’d be viewing the evidence, pondering the testimony, looking into the eyes of the accused, then deciding their fate based on the needs of the insistent juror who was really trying hard to make her 1:30 salon appointment.
And the gum — don’t forget the gum.
As I exited the parking lot and drove home, I passed a herd of cows and pronounced them guilty as charged, just to see how it felt. It was rewarding yet humbling to be sitting in judgment of others, even if they were only livestock.
Now it’s back to real life, where I have to endure constant affronts with a smile and a shrug. No jury of her peers is going to deal with that woman in front of me at Starbucks who wants to use a check to pay for her coffee. No judge is going to take my recommendation that the driver who failed to signal his right turn is deserving of not less than five years detention at a state correctional facility.
My only real reward comes to $18.42, which I’ll be receiving via mail in about three weeks.