California, Cars, Jury Duty

Chris Draws Jury Duty in the Suburbs: You Know What, It Wasn’t So Bad…

I was called to serve jury duty yesterday morning in the pastoral East Bay suburb of Walnut Creek, in Contra Costa County, California.

I only had to stay until about lunchtime, because I actually don’t live in that county, and shouldn’t have been called anyway (my driver’s license still has my parents’ address on it, blah blah). I spent the morning waiting and getting general instructions from the jury clerk. But I was excused pretty much as soon as we actually got into the courtroom, so I didn’t have to have my friend call in a bomb threat to escape serving, like this brainiac.

My colleague Elie Mystal wrote about his jury service somewhat recently, and I have no desire to be repetitious. What was interesting about my experience yesterday was how completely different was from when I was called last year in Oakland.

Let’s just say, “the wilderness downtown” has very different meanings depending on whether you’re in the suburbs or the city….

Some people are lucky enough to avoid jury service for years, but recently I have not been so lucky. Last year, I had to report to the Alameda County Courthouse in downtown Oakland.

When I arrived, there was literally a homeless person sleeping in front of the courthouse doors. Someone had to rouse him from his sleeping bag when we went inside. We went through x-ray machines, as per usual, but I don’t remember anything special about it (more on that later).

You could tell a lot of people in the jury pool really, really did not want to be there. Not just because jury duty is a hassle, but because they had better things to do, like working for employers that were probably less understanding of jury duty than they are legally required to be, and trying to put food on the table for their families.

In Oakland, I was one of the very few white people in the room. The one other memorable Caucasian was an old hippie who looked like he’d fried his brains from taking too many drugs over the years. The courthouse staff at Alameda was nice to us, but there seemed to be a general air of impatience and frustration with everyone and everything. (When I went to traffic court that same year to hopelessly attempt to fight a ticket, that attitude was echoed and amplified significantly.)

Walnut Creek could not have been more different. From the start, things were much more pleasant. There was a fair amount of free parking in the front of the courthouse, as long as you got there a little early. (There was at least one new, red Mercedes in the parking lot.) Despite this, all morning the jury clerk and at least one bailiff continued to apologize sincerely and profusely about how difficult it was to park.

In downtown Oakland, there is literally no free parking anywhere near the courthouse. You are simply stuck with either parking meters on the street or a number of flat-fee lots (including one attached to the courthouse).

Back in Walnut Creek, we lined up to enter, on a quiet, sunny morning, and there were literally six deputies gathered around the single x-ray machine to handle our sleepy security screening process. It was pretty ridiculous. The deputies were nice enough, but they made me run my bag through twice because somehow my box of breath mints looked like a camera “with headphones coming out of it.” Seems like they didn’t have anything better to do.

The other noticeable difference was that all the jurors were dressed like professional adults. Even the few younger people who appeared to be college-aged weren’t particularly scrubby. The crowd definitely skewed older, like folks who had recently retired from comfortable-ish upper-middle class careers.

It was also the most Caucasian group I’ve been around in a long time. Life in any major city is simply not homogenous. I don’t think there were any African-Americans in the jury room, and there was a relatively limited number of people of other ethnic backgrounds — at least as far as I could tell from looking at people’s skin.

But the most surprising, and pleasant, difference was the way they treated us. I saw no trace of the Nurse Ratched character that Elie dealt with, or even the overarching grumpy cynicism that I saw in Oakland. Our jury clerk was a jovial, self-deprecating woman who repeatedly joked about how much we all wanted to not be there (herself included). She gave us sincere compliments about our politeness and general non-idiocy. She answered everybody’s questions patiently, even a few oddball ones from the older people in the room.

I guess the point is that the morning was a good eye-opener. After spending the last several years living in an urban environment (whether in Chicago, Oakland, or San Francisco), I had forgotten how different day-to-day existence was out in the suburbs.

Maybe this is obvious, but going to jury duty this time provided an opportunity to be reminded of that through the lens of our legal system. A lot of criticisms about places like Oakland (or any number of other cities) are at least partially unfounded, but you can’t deny that it’s a different world.

Oh, and one last thing. If the woman in the white tank top and blue pants, working on her Apple laptop while we were waiting somehow happens to see this: you are super cute. Do you want to get coffee sometime?

Text message clears jury room [Houston Chronicle]

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