Our government, I am more and more convinced, has degenerated into a mechanism whose most palpable effect (not its purpose, of course) is to irritate citizens by wasting their time and requiring their collusion in an endless bureaucratic paper chase.
It being the end of March, some of you might think that I have the preposterous ceremony known as tax preparation in mind. That, certainly, would be a fit subject for beady-eyed scrutiny, not to say comedy or a psychiatrist’s intervention.
But I am not thinking about that outrageous offense against common sense just now. No, my theme for the day is jury duty. Perhaps there is a way to avoid it altogether. I have not yet discovered the way, though I regularly put it off for as long as convenient. It turns out that, this time around, that terminus ad quem was Friday, March 22, at 8:30 a.m. That was when I, together with another hundred or so of the local huddled masses, shuffled into an ugly, box-like “jury assembly room” to be regaled by Barbara, a clerk of the Court, about the privilege of serving as a cog in the great machinery of American justice. A judge joined her briefly to explain such concepts as impartiality, discretion, and the presumption of innocence. Then we were treated to a short (but not that short) video expatiating further on those and kindred themes. The television set was then given over to sports and various left-wing news programs retailing the depredations and backwardness of Republicans about such topics as gay marriage and abortion.
None of it made a noticeable impression on the citizen in front of me, whose cap was emblazoned with the words “Sons of Anarchy” and an image of a grinning, becloaked skeleton brandishing a species of halberd or pike. I was going to ask him whether he thought it was really possible for an ordinary person to assess such cases as were likely to come before us “without bias,” as we had been enjoined, indeed, had been required to swear (or affirm), to do. I lost my chance, however, for I was distracted by the large female behind me to the left. She may have been a model of impartiality when it came to personal injury cases, but she clearly had a pronounced bias towards the ingestion of calories. It was not her girth that arrested my attention, though, but her iPhone. It tinkled early and tinkled often, and she supplemented its summonses with an antiphony of “Happy Birthday,” sung repeatedly in a soft, but only intermittently melodic, alto.
It was now about 10:00. I was deep into Anthony Everitt’s superlative biography of Cicero, appropriate reading, I thought, for one forced to linger in the antechambers of a court of law. It was amusing to contemplate what the great advocate and orator would have made of the proceedings. It seemed unlikely that there would be any latter-day Sextus Roscius for him to defend or Verres or Catline for him him to attack.
There wasn’t. Barbara came back to describe the first case. Car A hit Car B, or so it was alleged. Anyway, I gathered that’s what the driver of Car B said, and he (or she) was sticking to his story. The dramatis personae was announced, including the attorneys involved: I knew one of them! Instant disqualification. I was feeling pretty good. Barbara left us.
Time moved on slowly in the jury assembly room. I had positioned myself near the back of the room, taking care that a pillar obscured my view of the podium (and the podium’s view of me) as well as the television, which, I noted at one point, featured a raspy-voiced feminist assuring her audience that Republicans were out of touch with the needs of women. My watch read 11:30.
Next case: Medical malpractice! The hand of fate reached into the hat and pulled out 25 names at random. As each name was read off, its owner stood. I was number 24.
Surveys were distributed. There were scores if not hundreds of names of individuals and institutions. Did we know any of them? If so, in what capacity? Once again, a couple were known to me, but it would take an interview to impart this critical bit of information. One o’clock stole upon us. What Wodehouse describes as that not unpleasant feeling of emptiness that is the silent luncheon gong of the soul had sounded. We had 60 minutes to heed its call. I made my way to the 2nd floor, which advertised a cafeteria. I saw to my dismay that, in my case, at least, that sensation of emptiness was going to have to be prolonged. I surmised that a “Bubba Burger” was not calculated to please the Kimball palate. I made my way sadly back upstairs and waited. And waited. Potential Juror Number 1 was interviewed. Ten minutes later, it was Number 2’s turn. Some more time passed. It was about 3:00 p.m. when Number 14 was called, 4:00 before they got to Number 20. I was reading with relish about how Cicero, when consul, had summarily dispatched Lentulus and several other Catiline conspirators, ordering them dropped into a hole in the state prison in the Forum and strangled. Efficient, I thought. (What would he have done with drones?)
4:30 came. The once bustling room was occupied now by myself, slouched unhappily in my chair, and a woman who paced back and forth in her hat and coat, muttering into her cell phone and eying the clock plaintively. Barbara popped her head into the room. “Is someone still in there?” she asked. Neither my pacing partner in melancholy nor I had the will to answer that rhetorical question. Barbara padded over to the interview room for a word with the Perry Masons inside. “You can go,” she proclaimed magnificently on her return: the pacer and I, presumably, would be granted our audience on Monday. It was now 4:50. Eight hours and twenty minutes. The “Sons of Anarchy” was a nice touch. And the “Happy Birthday” lady offered a moment’s amusement. The awful power of state had commanded the presence of some 100 citizens. Most were freed within a couple hours. A few of us were less lucky. Was it the wheels of justice we heard grinding away, or merely the wheels of the hypertrophied state apparatus masquerading as justice?