Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Voir Dire

I’ve been summoned to jury duty next month.

I know that nobody ever wants to do jury service (with one serious, fabulous exception I can think of), but the idea of having to go down there and get empaneled (because the City and County of New York, unlike the City and County of San Francisco, does seem to empanel most people) while I’m on research leave seemed to me like a special sort of dreadful. It got me thinking about the absolute extent to which being on the tenure track skews one’s priorities. I know jury service is important. I know that smart people are exactly the ones who shouldn’t try to get out of it. I know that the obligation of women to serve on juries is barely older than I am, from a constitutional-legal perspective (Duren v. Missouri, 1979), and that women serving is tremendously important in ensuring trial by peer. But all of that logic keeps circling back to: But, while I’m on research leave? For my first book? My tenure book? Now? Trying to finish up my book manuscript has turned me into an incredibly tedious person. I'm not proud or happy about the fact that I care less about a lofty ideal of justice for the people who breathe the same air that I do than about some kind of historical-narrative justice for their 800-years-dead familiars. There's a lot of talk about justice and the academy these days — not in these terms, but I think it's another manifestation of the bigger problem. 

I’m looking forward to having my head and a slighter wider horizon back. But for now, in my current frame of mind, this is how the voir dire, the jury selection process, played itself out in my head last night:

— Have you served on a jury before?

--- Yes, sir.

— Did you think the outcome was fair?

--- Hard to say, in the end.

— Did you think the process was fair?

--- No, sir, I didn’t. It was a civil case. We were determining damages for a personal injury case that had already been decided. We weren’t even talking about orders of magnitude of difference and we just didn’t have a frame of reference for what might have been the right decision. It seemed like the sort of thing that a judge or an arbiter could have decided faster and probably more fairly. It wasn’t fair and it was a colossal waste of time.

— The plaintiff was entitled to have a jury decide.

--- Yes she was, sir.

— Do you think the criminal justice system has the capacity to be fair?

--- I think it has the capacity to be fair, sir, but most of the time it isn’t. That’s what I think, anyway. I think that if you’re not white, it’s hard to get justice and hard to be treated fairly.

--- I think that the current jury system brings out the worst in people. It incentivizes acting like a nut in this setting. The last time I was called for jury duty, there was a woman who was either acting nuts or only pretending to be a nurse, or the Mount Zion HIV/AIDS clinic has a real problem because she claimed to be a nurse for them. And I’m not proud, but you are talking to someone, you are about to empanel someone who cares more about her career right now than about justice.

— What is your career?

--- I’m a college professor, sir.

— What days do you teach this semester?

--- I’m on sabbatical, sir, so I don’t have regular classes that I’ll miss, but actually, that would be easier. I could ask a colleague to fill in or reschedule two, or even three meetings with my students for later in the semester. But if you take me away from my research for two weeks now, that’s two weeks that I’m not going to get back. I’m at a point where two weeks matters, where it could make the difference between finishing my book in time to submit it for tenure or not finishing in time. I know jury duty is important but I don’t want to lose my job.

— You can’t be fired for serving on a jury.

--- That’s not how tenure cases work, sir.

— You don’t want to be here, then.

--- It might be that I don’t give a damn anymore, but it might also be that I don’t give a damn again yet. I hope that’s all it is. Let me postpone to 2017 and we’ll see.


  1. Obstreperous. Need a character witness? :)

  2. If I need help proving that I'm obstreperous, it means I'm slipping... ;)