Impromptus

I Sing of Jury Duty

by Jay Nordlinger

On a recent podcast with Mona Charen, I was talking about jury duty — singing the praises of it, mainly. I’d like to sing those verses in this column. Plus several more. (Verses, that is, not columns.)

I was on jury duty last week, and the judge in a case said something interesting. He said, “Now that the draft is over, the only thing we’re required to do is jury duty. That and pay taxes.” I sat there in my pew — or whatever you call the benches in a courtroom — trying to contradict this amazing statement. I couldn’t. Later, I thought some more, trying to contradict it.

Is jury duty our only civic obligation, aside from paying taxes (if you want to count that)? I suppose so.

You could say voting — but you don’t have to do that. Jury duty, you have to do. It sustains this system we all appreciate (or should appreciate).

Years ago, my grandmother was called to jury duty in her Michigan town. She was balking. It was such an inconvenient time. The judge — whom she knew — said, “Suppose you were the defendant in a case. You’d be innocent, of course. Wouldn’t you want the best people available on your jury? Conscientious people, who did not want to shirk their duty?”

That made her see jury service in a different light. (I wonder how many people think of themselves as defendants, or potential defendants.)

Rick Brookhiser shared something with me. Our late colleague Joe Sobran had a plan for getting out of being impaneled on a jury. The plan went like this: He’d ask, “Are citizens summoned for jury duty randomly?” Yes, would come the answer. He’d then say, “But I understand a different process is used for choosing defendants.”

Another colleague of mine said to me, “I always leaf through a copy of Guns & Ammo.” For some reason, this stays the hands of the attorneys.

As he questioned us jurors — potential jurors — the judge read off a list of people involved in the case. He asked us whether we knew any of them. And I had this thought:

“It’s one thing to ask such a question here in New York County,” i.e., Manhattan. (The population is about 1.6 million.) “But what about a small town? Surely you’d know someone, if not everyone.”

I’ll have to ask judicial friends about this . . .

A statistician, a probabilities expert, would no doubt have a comment on this: In a jury pool of 75, I knew two other people. In Manhattan, remember. Normal? Expected?

The jury system, as everyone knows, is very, very democratic. In the pool of which I was part, there were Upper East Side ladies and Harlem janitors. I’m not reaching for metaphors, all writer-like. This was literally true. Where else but jury duty would they rub shoulders, would they work together, as equals?

In the course of questioning, one of the potential jurors announced, “I believe in jury nullification, in some cases.” That had to be a splash of cold water.

We were asked whether we, or someone close to us, had ever been the victim of a crime. And here, let me say something about New York and politics.

Next month, we’re going to have a mayoral election in this city. For 20 years, we have had peace, to an extraordinary degree. You can walk the streets, or most of them, at all hours. You could practically sleep in Central Park. The statistics are staggering — staggeringly wonderful.

For 20 years, nobody but Rudolph Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg has been mayor. But we seem set to elect a classic “progressive” as mayor — an admirer of the Castros, the Sandinistas, the whole nine yards.

The great question is, “Will New Yorkers prove willing to go back to the bad old days? Will they be willing to ‘tolerate the intolerable,’ in the words of Norman Podhoretz? To accept a city rife with crime?”

Back to jury duty. The judge was asking, “Have you or someone close to you ever been the victim of a crime?” The older New Yorkers in the pool all said, “Of course, in the bad old days.” It was as though you had asked them, “Have you ever eaten a sandwich? Have you ever watched television?”

It was simply expected, pre-1994, that you would be the victim of a crime, probably repeatedly. People, including schoolkids, carried “mugger money” — money to give to muggers, so they wouldn’t get too mad and do something worse than rob you. It was normal.

To be continued (sorry to say) . . .

I was not chosen for the case I’ve mentioned. I had two reactions: first, relief, because I could proceed with my calendar as I had planned it. But second, a bit of dismay: “You mean they didn’t want me? I’d have been an excellent juror, those . . .”

Visitors to New York, and residents too, like to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. I do it about every five years, I guess: when I’m called to jury duty and have a lunch break. (The courthouses I’m talking about are in southern Manhattan.)

One of the best things about the Brooklyn Bridge? A large, sharp, billowing American flag, plunked right on the crown, or crest. Splendid. (The Statue of Liberty is a little far away to give off her full majesty. The flag picks up some of the slack.)

Some years ago, I was quite cross about the jury system in our country. Juries in prominent cases had been fouling up, as I saw it. I asked a judge friend of mine what he thought about juries. My friend is a very sober-minded chap. He said, “They’re great. They almost never get a case wrong.”

I guess I trust that. And trial by jury — that is worth keeping up, I know.

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