Today I did jury duty. For the first time. And I liked it. For a while. And then I hated it.
I did not get chosen to be on the jury and that was probably better. I should have said something. But I was having such a reaction to the case and had never been there before so I just sat silently, thinking that if I was allowed to leave right then I may go out to my car and just cry for a bit.
So, it was at a JP, they were looking for a six-person jury, and based on the system, I had virtually no chance of being on the jury. But we learned early on that we were going to be a part of an eviction case. From everything I gathered, the plaintiff (the apartment complex) was suing the individual defendant because he had broken the rental agreement, had been evicted, but wouldn’t leave.
The plaintiffs were two well-dressed white guys (polo shirts, khakis, belts, one with a gold name tag, one with spiky gelled hair) and with them was their lawyer. The defendant was a black man in his long-sleeve plaid shirt, jeans, belt. He kept smiling at us, the plaintiffs did not.
When we first got there and the judge was explaining the case, I felt energized. I didn’t expect to be excited about serving on a jury but I felt like I was really doing something. Something important for our society. I was participating as a citizen in one of the institutions that I rely on. And then actual jury selection started.
The plaintiff went first. The lawyer had a suit and a shtick. He made sure to tell us that he was part of a firm, had tried plenty of cases, had been in this court room, had been involved in eviction cases. He made jokes about how he lived in Houston but spent so much time here that he was often cheering for the Longhorns (UT, the local university’s, mascot – there was a guy in the jury pool with a Longhorn shirt on). He made sure to always use the names of the jury members when he talked to them (I could tell that he was using some print out of our names in our positions to do so and he was used to this format). He was prepping us, letting us know the basics of the case, the basics of jury selection. It was a bit over-explanatory at points and felt condescending. I rolled my eyes, I’m sure. But, just to be fair, I reacted the same way yesterday to my annoying and condescending yoga teacher (“That’s right, folks! There are muscles in the feet and you are stretching them now. You being able to walk isn’t magic!”). He also kept pointing out that they were looking for six people who were going to be totally impartial and without bias. But that was total shit and I knew it. As if he wasn’t already working on us, trying to persuade us with his jokes and his knowledge of the law and the court. The lawyer was at ease, in his element, comfortable, home.
He started to ask questions. About leases, evictions, and litigation. And then he asked the first question that started to turn my stomach. It was something like, “Will you have trouble ruling in favor of my client because you don’t want to evict someone?” A lady who was definitely in the running of being on the jury spoke up and said yes. The lawyer explained that in this court case, if the evidence was 51% in favor of his client, the jury was instructed to rule in his client’s favor. So, he wanted to know if this lady, if it came down to a slim margin like 51% in favor of the plaintiff, would be able to rule for his client even though it meant the defendant would be out of a home. And she, boldly, said she would struggle with that decision and couldn’t guarantee that she would. I could see the goosebumps on her arms.
This question made it so real. That nice looking man in his plaid shirt and jeans was going up against a corporation with their corporate lawyer and would probably not have a home really soon. I started to feel sick. This is when the desire for the privacy of my car started to hit. I could feel tears behind my eyes, the pressure building, though I knew there was no actual chance for tears. I just suddenly needed a catharsis, a release of emotion.
The lawyer then went on to ask if anyone would have trouble with the idea that a contract is a contract, chiseled into stone, signed in blood. If it says it in the contract, then it is what it is. There is no room for wiggle. The lady next to me spoke up. She said that while she understands the idea behind contracts, as someone whose entire job is to deal with contracts for her high tech company, she didn’t believe for one second that there was no wiggle room, no space for negotiation. For her, it was about constant negotiation, making it best for all parties at all times. I’m sure that sometimes that means terminating a contract, suing for breach of contract, etc. But she obviously felt that those were not always the necessary or best ends of a broken contract. You knew she was off the list of potential jurors right then. And I instantly liked her, too.
Finally, the lawyer asked us if we would have trouble ruling in favor of his clients because they were representatives of a company and a company, based solely on its size (and implicitly its ability to retain a lawyer), had more resources than the defendant and so could take the hit. Unlike the defendant. At this point I should have said, “Yes.” I felt it. In every muscle, as I clinched my fist, squeezed my toes, tried to take deep breaths. Man, I would take back that moment if I could. I want to relive it. Because it was so clear that the defendant was at a total disadvantage from the beginning (I mean, hell, the lawyer had made it clear that it wasn’t just about eviction. If the defendant lost, he was going to have to pay the plaintiff’s lawyer’s fees and the court costs. Ouch. Clearly the man couldn’t afford fees for his own attorney).
Then the defendant began his questioning of the jury.
It almost sounded like an opening statement. He said that he didn’t want to be there. But that, at least, he felt like finally someone would listen to him, hear his side of the story (he actually repeated this at the end before he sighed, smiled, and returned to his seat). He told us the case would come down to what the jury believed about contracts. He clearly had no idea what he was doing and told us so. He wanted to call the jury members by their names but wasn’t as adept at reading that sheet as the lawyer was. One time the lawyer even supplied someone’s name for the defendant when he was having trouble locating it on the sheet.
From the defendant’s questioning of potential jurors, it sounded like he had broken the contract with the apartment complex, tried to fix it, didn’t fix it fast enough, and was evicted.
In the end, I breathed a sigh of relief when I wasn’t chosen. And I left. And I didn’t end up crying in the car. But hours later, I still feel the weight of the experience on me. And I was just a potential juror.
I’m sure that the guy didn’t win. The lawyer for the plaintiffs had told us during this 51/49 analogy not to worry because he thinks the evidence was more like 90/10 (he actually told us that a couple of times at least). And the lawyer had been there before, had crossed examined witnesses, had piles and piles of papers with him, was comfortable in his suit and his legalese, and he was clearly confident in his chances.
And so the defendant will probably no longer have a home (a place he lived for five years). He will probably have to pay court fees and lawyer fees on top of it all.
Like the defendant said, at least the justice system offered a place to publicly air his grievance. He didn’t have that opportunity before. I think he felt that it was the fairest shot he was going to get.
I will probably stalk the website of the county court to see if the ruling for the case goes up in the next few days.
Jury duty was nothing like I expected. At all. I’m glad that I did it. I will not look down on it at all the next time it happens. I’ll probably be excited to participate in it.
And I will certainly pipe up next time when they want to know if I am impartial. Because I’m not sure I would ever be impartial. No one is. What a strange idea.