Let me be frank: I am a terrible citizen. I haven’t voted in any election since 2008. I'm a registered independent and a card-carrying member of exactly zero civic organizations. I've never been a Young Republican or, for that matter, a middle-aged Democrat or an old Whig. I'm unlikely to Lean In and I have absolutely no interest in Organizing for Action. As far as I'm concerned, the worst thing about participatory democracy is that, at some point, one is actually obliged to participate.
But there is one civic activity so momentous, so consequential, so required-by-law that even a near-anarchist like me must heed the government's call to serve. So it was with mild displeasure that I showed up at the Metropolitan Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles last month to fulfill my obligation as that small but indispensable cog in our criminal justice machine: the juror.
This was my first conscription into this form of municipal serfdom, and given the public declarations of mental instability and white supremacy some acquaintances claim to have made to avoid jury duty, I half-expected my time in service to resemble a trip to the DMV in Guantánamo Bay.
Perhaps in some places that's the case, but this is L.A., and everything is more fun here. First of all, the walls of the jury assembly room are lined with posters promoting a fake movie entitled Jury Service. Each poster features a celebrity who has actually served, though, much like the building in which they hang, the "celebrities" could have used an update: Weird Al Yankovic! Camryn Manheim! Judge Lance Ito! There was even a low-grade celebrity among the jury pool whose identity I will protect—though, surely, he'll soon be on the wall with Weird Al.
About half an hour after checking in, I found myself one step closer to actually having to do something to justify my supposedly God-given freedom. Forty of us were led into a courtroom, where we met Judge Candybowl (all names have been changed to protect the innocent, and for my own amusement). Judge Candybowl, I soon found out, is a hanging judge: not a judge inclined to hang the guilty, but a judge who clearly wants to hang out with everyone. (His fake name comes from his ritual of passing a bowl of candy among the jury after lunch.)
As voir dire commenced, we went around the room stating our occupations for the court. We discovered that some of the prospective jurors work in entertainment, and Judge Candybowl asked each, "Have we seen any of your films?" One woman made the mistake of saying her husband is an actor. "Who is he?" Candybowl wondered.
"He's on a show called Kingdom."
"Ohhhh, has anyone here seen Kingdom?" Candybowl asked, to awkward silence.
As jury selection wound down, I realized that, short of pledging my allegiance to David Duke or pretending to not understand English, I was going to be picked. Since this is L.A., I was hoping for the worst, criminally speaking: a gangland RICO case or a celebrity prostitution ring. But in short order I was named juror number 9 in a he said/she said hit-and-run case. Damn.
For the next six days, there I found myself: cynic, inactivist, lazy person, now forced to participate in our system of self-governance, involuntarily engaged in an act of civic responsibility, coerced into searching for truth and justice. And, mostly, just trying to stay awake.
The defendant, JoJo Crashmeister, was alleged to have fled the scene after a rear-end collision with the victims, Johnny Cash-In and Suzy Insurance Fraud. They're suing him in civil court, alleging what appear to be highly specious injuries. The prosecutor, Mr. Twitchy, had only circumstantial evidence on his side and seemed nervous (we discover afterwards it was his first trial). The defense ran circles around him, and by the time we were sent off to deliberate, most of us—socio-ethno-genderic patchwork of America that we were—were inclined to acquit. As we had been instructed—and as any dedicated viewer of Law and Order can tell you—we had to be convinced of JoJo's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. When I—newly engaged citizen that I am—reminded my fellow jurors of this fact, we had no choice but to return a verdict of not guilty.
After the verdict was read, the judge thanked us for our service, and we were dismissed. As I left the courthouse, my sense of civic pride was, well, pretty much the same as it was before. Life's too short, as far as I can tell, to be wasted doing good. But I do take some comfort in being pretty sure that something approximating justice had probably been done that day. I think.