Life Outside the Bubble
This past summer my number came up for jury duty. I’ve always been ambivalent about it. On the one hand, it’s our civic duty and even a privilege to participate in the justice system. On the other, it’s a pernicious time suck that can confine you to an airless chamber for months.
I arrived at the Santa Ana courthouse at 7:45 a.m. with 364 other inconvenienced people. I googled, “How to talk your way out of jury duty.” As I scanned the 1.2 million results, I told myself not to lie under oath. Not bigly, anyway.
My name got called for a civil case and I went to the ninth floor of the modernist building architect Richard Neutra designed in 1968.
While waiting in the hallway, I looked out the window and saw a ghastly sight: a gigantic homeless encampment in what’s called the Plaza of the Flags. Conveniently swept from public view, it’s heart-wrenching in the same way as the miles of encampments along the Santa Ana River. An existential crisis in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.
They called my name first. An ominous sign. Then they filled the room with 50 other prospective jurors. We’d spend the day being vetted.
The judge began by earnestly convincing us of the importance of jury service. He spoke of injustice, and cited none other than Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 26 years simply for writing something the government took issue with. He spoke of Martin Niemoller, a German pastor who denounced the Nazi treatment of Jews and famously wrote about speaking out against injustice. Judge, you already had me at Mandela.
We then learned this would be a case of one bereaved shopping center developer suing another over a purchase gone bad. I deflated. Not exactly the noble carriage of justice I was hoping for. But likely to conclude pretty quickly, or so I thought. When queried by the attorneys about my ability to make a fair and objective decision, I was forthright and said yes. Things were looking good.
But then the judge sprang a bombshell: the trial was expected to take seven court days. Say what? It was the dreamy days of late August, with beautiful, warm water, and a dearth of tourists. I decided then and there I had to get out of this.
It was too late to say what I was really thinking: this battle of greedy developers, with their high paid lawyers and million dollar settlements, was a gigantic waste of taxpayer money, and an injustice to these poor jurors – many of whom said they could not afford the time off. I could not imagine spending a week listening to prattle about faulty inspection reports, deceitful disclosures, and bereaved tenants.
What move could I pull to suddenly prove I was unfit for service? Google told me to be opinionated. Lawyers don’t like people who aren’t malleable. So when a lawyer asked if any of us did not believe in the statute of limitations, I raised my hand and said forcefully, “No, not in the case of rape or other violent crimes. I mean, look at Bill Cosby. There are multiple reasons why these women didn’t come forward sooner.” The judge interrupted me.
“We are talking about real estate, not rape,” he said. Oops. We broke for lunch.
When we returned, the judge began dismissing jurors – mostly the students and teachers who might miss the start of school. But not me. They started interviewing alternative jurors. Things looked grim. I was in a cold panic.
And then, like winning the lottery, I heard my number called. “Juror Number 1. Thank you for your time. You’re dismissed.” I contained my temptation to yell “yes!” but secretly wondered why I wasn’t fit. I ran out of the building, into the marvelous fresh air, and felt like an inmate tasting freedom for the first time.
Then I saw the homeless encampment and felt a pang of guilt at celebrating something so banal. And now I just learned that Santa Ana passed a new law that prohibits enclosed spaces (like tents), as well as food and medical services on public property without prior city permission. It’s designed to target the 175 homeless residents of the plaza. The city says it’s necessary to protect public health and safety, including city workers and people visiting government buildings (like potential jurors). It was clear this was another tactic to further marginalize those who have lost their way, and sweep them from public view.
It was approved unanimously, one more assault on our nation’s values that are enshrined on the Statue of Liberty with the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
So while justice is meted out daily on the high floors of the adjacent building, on the ground floor of the human condition it is indeed elusive.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursdays at 8 p.m. on FM radio station KX 93.5. He can be reached at [email protected]