America doesn’t demand much of its citizenry. We the People are entitled to all sorts of rights, of course, as guaranteed by the Constitution. But the requirements side of the ledger is pretty short: obey the law; register for the draft (if you’re a guy); defend the country (if you’re not a conscientious objector); pay taxes (if you make enough money and don’t have a tax shelter in the Dutch Antilles); appear in court if called as a witness; and serve on a jury. Voting—the bedrock of democracy? Totally optional.
I offer you this little civics-class review because I recently received a summons for jury duty in Hennepin County—and unlike most Americans, I was genuinely excited. Here was a chance to serve my country without having to carry a gun or a U.S. Census clipboard! Here was a chance to see the inner workings of American jurisprudence! Here was a chance to exercise a talent I’d been honing my entire life: judging others!
So it was, in June, that I found myself in a courtroom on the 16th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. There were 22 of us; a number that would soon be reduced to a jury of 12. It already felt like an Agatha Christie novel.
A series of questions ensued, administered by the judge. Are you married? What do you do? Have you ever been charged with a crime? Have you ever been in court? I didn’t plead the Fifth even once.
But then his Honor turned things over to the defense attorney. “Mr. Hoekstra, you work for a magazine. What do you write about?” I ticked off the roster of topics, a wide-ranging list: politics, art, culture,
crime…. “Are you planning to write about this case?” she inquired with a churlish smile.
“Not yet,” I replied, grinning back. Everyone laughed, but I had the acute sense that my joke had cost me something. Was she scratching my name from the list? Strike one.
Next up, the prosecution. The crime stories I’d produced—what were they about? I explained that the first one I ever wrote had centered on a burglary and assault case in Hennepin County. A man had been convicted and imprisoned for 10 years before the sole witness in the case came forward and recanted his testimony. “So our office worked with the Innocence Project to get the convicted man released?” the prosecutor queried. I squirmed: “Um, no ma’am. Your office fought the release….” A bungled case, recalcitrant attorneys. The story cast doubt on the effectiveness of the whole judicial system. Strike two.
The prosecutor pressed on, nonetheless: How would hearing this case be different than reporting on it? “Well, uh…I won’t be asking questions,” I replied. And will that be problematic? she asked. I paused. “I guess that depends on what questions are asked,” I replied.
Laughter. Striiiiike three, for sure.
Minutes later, 10 of us were dismissed. My chance to serve my country had vanished. I would hear no testimony, render no justice. As we filed out, the old woman seated next to me touched my arm. “For a few minutes there,” she said, “it seemed like you were on trial.” Thankfully not.