It seemed important to record all the details since I only get picked for jury duty once every couple of years. I’d never been to the El Cajon courthouse before and it is very different from downtown San Diego. It’s a friendlier kind of justice. There’s even a greeter in the front hallway, just like Wal Mart except he didn’t inspect our bags for return items. A friendly clerk sat behind the desk and printed out a copy of my summons, just like the one I’d left on my office table.
The “jury lounge” is institutional but not unappealing, and we were enticed to sit up front close to the podium with well-padded chairs beckoning to us from the first four rows. I thought about suggesting the idea to my pastor, except in my church we fight over the front rows, so nevermind. We had soda and snack machines and bookshelves with books no one wanted to read so they’d been donated to the courthouse. We had magazine racks and a quiet room so we could plug in our laptops and keep working while we waited. And no matter the number of signs on the wall, no matter the number of requests to turn our cell phones off, I sat next to a woman who insisted on carrying on lengthy conversations on her phone. I tried not to be judgmental. Maybe her mother is in the hospital. Maybe her daughter has just been incarcerated for murder and she’s trying to arrange bail. You never know.
A bigger part of jury duty than sitting on a jury, which happens rarely, is the civics lessons you sit through while you’re there. A real judge, not a TV judge, comes down from upstairs and tells us how the court system works and the territory it covers. He tells us how proud he is that we’ve consented to take time out of our day in order to serve We the People. We watched a video where jurors talked about how good their experience was, and where we were reminded that the Constitution relied upon a body of citizens who would execute justice upon their neighbors. They may not have said it exactly like that, “execute justice,” but that was the idea. It’s easier to be interested and impartial judging your neighbor if you have to go back home and wave at his wife on her front porch, or sit next to them in church on a Sunday. Out in the hallway was The Freedom Shrine. It had framed copies of documents important to our history: There was a copy of the Mayflower Compact, George Washington’s first inaugural address, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. There was a copy of the Northwest Ordinance, the Monroe Doctrine, the Instrument of Surrender for WW II in the Pacific, the Gettysburg Address, George Washington’s Farewell Address, the Treaty of Paris, Ben Franklin’s epitaph (he wrote it out himself beforehand). There was a copy of McAuliff’s Christmas Message, and a copy of the Star Spangled Banner, penned by Francis Scott Key.
I am ashamed to say I didn’t know what the Northwest Ordinance was. It established the Northwest Territory, and in the words of Wikipedia it was
“Arguably the single most important piece of legislation passed by members of the earlier Continental Congresses other than the Declaration of Independence, it established the precedent by which the United States would expand westward across North America by the admission of new states, rather than by the expansion of existing states.”
Now I know.
I met Sonya and Harry outside on the plaza. Sonya was snappily accessorized in a blue and white striped outfit. Harry reminded me of my old boss, Greg, fullback big and happy. They were there to attend a home foreclosure auction on the steps of the courthouse. They wanted to buy a house for their granddaughter. We were both hopeful that they would find a good house and I would be released from duty and home before lunchtime.
The mailman was big, too. I watched him carry a mail bucket into the front door of the courthouse and noticed that his right leg from the knee down was a prosthetic. His left calf had a big tattoo. His right calf, a plastic prosthetic was tattooed, too, even more elaborately than his other calf. I wanted to chase him down and tell him how cool I thought that was. The courthouse, as friendly as it is, doesn’t encourage running or any kind of exuberant and potentially unpredictable behavior.
We were released a little bit after 10 am. Sonya and Harry were still in the plaza waiting for the auction. The only thing that beat having a day to play was that mailman’s tattoo. I love what he did. I love what people do sometimes, how they make something crappy into something really neat.