When the summons arrives in the mail, popular culture expects your first reaction to be a very loud groan.
Jury duty? No one likes jury duty.
Only when my summons came, quite frankly, I was indifferent. Check that. It wasn’t that I was indifferent, it’s that this burst of energy in me seemed to elude a name. It wasn’t quite excitement but it wasn’t quite nerves either. I’ve had a similar type of feeling before, usually while standing on the beach prior to a triathlon swim start. Only in this case, the swirling energy in the pit of my stomach wasn’t nearly as intense.
This, I believe, is a sure sign that my triathlon journey provides a good training ground for real life — being able to renegotiate my own feelings. But I digress slightly.
As is the procedure in New York State, I called an automated service each night after 6 p.m. to see if my juror identification number was called. I had to make it through the week to have my service completed for the next seven years or so. By Wednesday, I felt pretty safe. Ha! The automated recording told me to report on Thursday morning to the jury selection room in downtown Buffalo.
What became evident is that there is no quick story when it comes to the legal system. While there was a good chance I would report to the selection process, there was a stronger chance I would not be selected for a jury.
I was selected as an alternate juror on a personal injury case in which a young man was suing his automobile insurance company to collect money on his policy after sustaining serious and life-changing back injuries. As an alternate, my role is akin to a third-string quarterback. I attend everything. I listened to opening arguments, to each witness, to the submission of evidence to closing arguments. I even heard the specific jury instructions given by the presiding judge. Only when it was time to deliberate, game time as it were, was I then excused from service.
And what did I learn about the legal system? Is it anything like my beloved Law & Order?
Well, yes and no. It moves much slower (which is expected) and as a jury member, you don’t get to see all the action. All the motions the lawyers bring before the judge, and my sense was there were plenty in this case, are discussed and debated with the jury outside the courtroom. It feels like a lot of wasted time. But is it really?
Sometimes we don’t know everything that is going on. Some of it, as the judge explained, is “inside baseball.” We can complain about being kept in the dark. We can think the system needs to be changed.
Or we can go with the different rhythm of the day.
There was plenty to smile about as an interloper in the judicial system for five days but I still took my job for the week seriously. This was a job and while the outcome didn’t matter one bit to me (which is the entire point of a disinterested jury) I understood it meant a lot to the people bringing the lawsuit. It was perhaps the biggest reminder that we do on a daily basis affects the lives of others.
In this holiday season, at times we talk about being selfless, about giving and sacrifice. We call sitting on a jury part of our civic duty. It’s the price we pay for democracy. It’s the price we pay for having a driver’s license and voting. It’s our obligation as citizens. It’s a sacrifice — time away from our regular work (and sometimes regular income) and from our families and friends.
But here’s the thing: I showed up not thinking of my jury service as a duty or obligation. I thought about what I could gain from it. I gained the opportunity to have a different rhythm for a week. I learned about the legal system and procedure and insurance and the human body. I met some terribly interesting people — from the presiding judge to the court officer to my fellow jurors.
Selfish? Maybe. But by casting it as an adventure of sorts — as a chance to try something different — I showed up with an open mind, ready to be attentive and thoughtful. And I believe by showing up in that way every day, I helped affect the lives of the people involved. You can serve the greater good by making a simple choice in how you show up.
And that lesson was worth a week of jury duty to learn.