Yesterday I was summonsed for jury duty. I’ve been waiting for this day for 17 years.
Call me crazy, but I don’t understand why people try so hard to get out of jury duty. Yesterday, when the clerk asked for anyone who thought they should be excused to form an orderly line, 50 people stood and queued to the left of the bench. None of them were dressed as if they would rush back to the office as soon as they were dismissed and put the final touches on their groundbreaking cure for cancer, finish drafting a pre-approved mid-east peace treaty, or tighten the last bolts on one of those anti-gravity hover cars I’ve been expecting since I was 7-years-old.
On the contrary, if they were excused, each of these men and women were planning to go home, turn off their cell phones, and waste the afternoon by watching television. Like me, they’ve all spent a significant portion of their lives sitting on a couch in front of the square-headed time eater. And what have they been watching?
2000’s: American Idol, a show where we watch young “singers” perform so we can responsibly cast our vote as to whether they’ve presented a strong enough case to stay and compete on the next week's show. Paula, Simon, and Randy are the judges. America is the jury.
1990’s: Law & Order, a show where the legal process in action – from arrest to prosecution – holds the attention of millions of people for 60 minutes (or up to 5 hours if you get drawn into a vortex of re-runs on TNT) every week… or, if you get caught in the previously mentioned syndication vortex, every day.
1980’s: The People’s Court. One of the earliest examples of reality TV, The People’s Court gave daytime television watchers a voyeur's seat at the legal system’s bedroom window. While we folded laundry and waited for Al Gore to develop the internet, didn’t we all try to guess how Judge Wapner would settle “The Case of the Overdone Underthings”?
Honestly, who hasn’t succumbed to the guilty pleasure of Divorce Court? Who wouldn’t recognize Judge Judy if they passed her on the street? What child of the 80’s can claim that he/she didn’t ask to stay up after The Cosby Show and Cheers to watch as Judge Harry T. Stone presided over his zany Night Court? What baby boomer doesn’t know how Perry Mason ended every week?
I’m sure Oliver North, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and OJ Simpson each wish America wasn’t addicted to the drama of our legal system at work.
I’m also sure John Grisham is thankful we are. His book-to-movie fortune has been funded by courtroom junkies who love reading/watching stories with titles like The Firm, The Client, and Runaway Jury.
And yet, when given the opportunity to watch legal drama in real-life, 50 people lined up yesterday in a Brooklyn courthouse to say “No thank you. I’d rather not see the live show. I’ll wait for it to come out on DVD or maybe buy the paperback.”
Fortunately, as these men and women gave their carefully rehearsed excuses to the court clerk, I was sitting close enough to the bench to overhear many of their reasons for “why I can’t help protect the innocent (or punish the guilty, depending on whether your glass is more full or more empty) today.”
My favorite excuse? A middle-aged man handed his summons to the court clerk and asked (in a heavy Brooklyn accent) to be dismissed. The clerk, confirming that the man wasn’t an immigrant (despite his Brooklyn Forever! accent), politely asked “sir, where were you born?”
“I’m from Brooklyn,” the man said, barely hiding his pride that he’s never been above 23rd street.
“Then why didn’t you fill in your Social Security Number?”
“I was born here in Brooklyn,” the man confirmed, “but they never gave me one of those Social Security Numbers. They must’a forgot. Can I go?”
Bank accounts. Insurance forms. Tax returns. W4’s. 1099’s. Credit card applications. Marriage licenses. Certificates of divorce. All of these documents require a Social Security Number. Is it possible for a 40-year-old man to live in Brooklyn, USA his whole life without having a "Social"?
Did the man really expect the court to believe that the US Government, who uses this number to make sure every citizen pays every penny of tax they owe, simply forgot to issue him one? It would have made more sense for the man to tell the clerk he was waiting for Uncle Sam to issue him a new Social Security Number ‘cause his old one was broken.
The clerk rolled his eyes and told Citizen X to sit down and finish his paperwork. I laughed aloud, wondering again why people gripe and groan when given free tickets to this marvelous show.
Tomorrow, the man with no number will sit on a jury. Together with 11 other fair and impartial strangers, he will be forced to do in public what many of us voluntarily do in private – pass judgment.
I hope he’s more fair than he is clever.