Monday, July 18, 2005

Hooray for Juries!

A couple of weeks ago, I received a questionnaire from the NY state federal court. They wanted to expedite my inevitable juror-selection process, and so they had a few questions for me. I'm expecting a summons any day now.

I served about two years ago in civil court as an alternate. It was a strange case--though I imagine that at trial, most cases seem strange to a layperson--involving an ugly fight at a well-known gay bar in the Village. Serving jury duty was a pain in the ass--a boring, confusing combination of waiting around and concentrating--but everyone in that jurors' room took their responsibility seriously: hell, I came out with more respect for my fellow jurors than for either of the parties in court. I realized, in a couple of very quick, illicit, and late-in-the-trial conversations with fellow jurors, that they didn't have the same take on the evidence that I had thought self-evident.

I was only an alternate and never did hear how the case turned out, but the 12 smart and diverse New Yorkers left to decide the verdict seemed more than capable of delivering justice. I had gone into the process chaffing a bit at the legal direction that jurors are supposed to obey but gained a great deal of respect for the system at the end--the inspiring instance of jury nullification in the case of John Peter Zenger notwithstanding.

So, among the many threads of l'Affaire Plame that are now circulating in the Blogosphere, I would like to highlight and celebrate Time reporter Matthew Cooper's description of the grand jurors:
Grand juries are in the business of handing out indictments, and their docility is infamous. A grand jury, the old maxim goes, will indict a ham sandwich if a prosecutor asks it of them. But I didn't get that sense from this group of grand jurors. They somewhat reflected the demographics of the District of Columbia. The majority were African American and were disproportionately women. Most sat in black vinyl chairs with little desks in rows that were slightly elevated, as if it were a shabby classroom at a rundown college. A kindly African-American forewoman swore me in, and when I had to leave the room to consult with my attorneys, I asked her permission to be excused, not the prosecutor's, as is the custom. These grand jurors did not seem the types to passively indict a ham sandwich. I would say one-third of my 2 1/2 hours of testimony was spent answering their questions, not the prosecutor's, although he posed them on their behalf.
These jurors will serve the court until whatever indictments can be obtained will be: the current story is that maybe they'll be free in October at some point. They are basically captive members of the court, being paid shit wages while the rest of their lives are on hold. They are at the center of and being asked to judge an extraordinarily complex unravelling of official secrets and lies. Who knows what they're thinking about ham sandwiches? At this point, I feel sympathy for them and admiration for the evident seriousness with which they accept their duty.

Very few judicial systems require as much citizen-service as the American one does. Most of continental Europe relies on prosecuting judges, while Canadia and England have scaled jury trials back to six persons, and then only in very serious cases. L'Affaire Plame is clearly serious, and the presence of a jury at least protects the judiciary in this country, in this political climate, from accusations of judicial activism.

Later on, perhaps, if things go wrong for Rove, we'll hear more about the demographics of this jury. From what I understand of Cooper's testimony, the jury pool seems to contain more than a few black women. Not what one would call, erm, an obviously Republican profile, but most likely one that represents fairly the eligible jury pool in the District of Columbia, a town which has good reason to be skeptical of the machinations of national-level politicians.

Good citizens of DC, I can't wait to hear your verdict, and I thank you for your service.


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