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Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Court TV

My Day Not in Court
Bob Sommer

A clean, well-lighted place. You’d have to say that about the jury waiting room at the Federal Courthouse. Lots of daylight from the broad windows. Free coffee in the kitchen. Seating for a large group neatly arranged in rows. Over in the corner a cluster of reading chairs and lamps. I decided to claim a chair before the place filled up. I’d heard that waiting was often the biggest part of jury duty. I’d brought a book. I was ready.

Unlike many, I looked forward to jury duty. Well, maybe that’s not fair. Others do too, I’m sure. Maybe days like the one ahead just wring the enthusiasm out of you. This was my first time. Close to a hundred people were to report, and I was the first one there. Our pool would last for a month. Every Friday we’d call a phone number and find out if we had to report on the following Monday. This was our first day.

A couple of techs were working on the projection system, which I assumed would show an orientation video. At the moment a morning talk show filled the huge screen in front of the room. Loudly too, but the techs were checking things out, plugging in plugs, doing whatever they did. The TV talkers jabbered on.

People drifted into the waiting room. The woman in charge told us nothing would happen for a while, so I settled into a chair and opened my book. The techs were gone, but the TV stayed on. Loud, chattering, insipid.

Later we watched a video. Several sitting and retired U.S. Supreme Court justices described the importance of our role in the judicial system. A brief orientation followed. We got a brochure. I was ready. Call me up to court. I will be impartial, engaged; I will serve Justice.

But Justice didn’t need me yet, and now the big screen flipped back to network TV. “The Price is Right” was on. People wore costumes and screamed hysterically when they were chosen; they cried when they won furniture, computers, a car. The volume was loud and reading difficult. A few other jurors had brought books or newspapers too. Some visited and got acquainted. Still others watched TV—perhaps regretting they didn’t have books.

Our pool was divided into two groups for different trials starting that day. One group was soon chosen to go upstairs, while mine had to wait. “The Young and the Restless” came on now. Some in the forgot-their-books group seemed familiar with the TV story. I just knew I was getting older and restless as morning became noon. Surely we’d get called after lunch.

But alas, all that awaited us back in the waiting room was “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Actors paused heavily between lines and exchanged foreboding glances. Melodrama and bad acting filled the room. I was two-thirds through my book. Still no sign of action.

The soap opera gave way to a talk show. A group of women discussed whether they preferred spontaneous or planned sex. Planned sex won out because that way the women could make sure their men showered. Also, the Superbowl had just been played that weekend. The show’s special guests were the child actors who played little Darth Vaders in everyone’s favorite TV commercial.

The forgot-their-books folks had by now broken off into small groups to enjoy the program. They found the little Darth Vaders as adorable as the talk show hosts did.

Other jurors-in-waiting poured over sections of newspapers they probably never read, while one or two had brought office paperwork. Cell phones, mercifully, were not permitted here, though this was for security reasons and not to improve the ambience.

By the time “Let’s Make a Deal” came on I was worried I’d finish my book before the day was out. I recalled this show from when I had measles as a kid. Imagine that—still on TV! I wondered whatever happened to Monty Hall.

“Ellen” filled the big screen late in the afternoon. The woman-in-charge’s phone now rang a couple of times, and it appeared that something was happening. She was up and down at her desk. I moved up closer so I could hear over Ellen.

A judge soon entered the room in robes. She stepped in front of the screen filled by Ellen’s very large face and began talking, but Ellen’s chatter swallowed up whatever she was saying. Abruptly the sound went off but not the visual, and now the judge, who seemed a little dazed, realized that a TV show was on the screen behind her, indeed, that she was blocking the view. She stepped aside so everyone could still watch TV as she spoke.

The defendants had pled out, she said. That was thanks to us, she added, because we were here, ready to serve the court. She looked spent. It had been a long day upstairs. The case was a big one—drug dealers, multiple charges and defendants. Sounded exciting. The judge gave us the credit for not having to go to trial. The jury was working even when it wasn’t working—just watching TV.

I’d finished my book just before the judge arrived—Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I recommend it, though you might want to find a quieter place to read. It was hard to concentrate as I waited to serve Justice.

Bob Sommer blogs at Uncommon Hours.

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