Reflecting on our civic duties

There I was, sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair, staring at a blank wall at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning while an administrator droned on. It was not my idea of fun. I don’t think it was anyone’s idea of fun. In fact, it felt more like elementary school detention, because it looked like elementary school detention. We were spaced far apart, we couldn’t talk, we had to stay in our seats, we had a dress code, we were advised to bring our own work and we didn’t know exactly how long we were supposed to be there.

President John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” So, it’s interesting what’s considered voluntary, and what’s considered obligatory. For instance, an immigrant, in order to become a citizen, must pass a test on the U.S. government, but if you’re born here, you can be as ignorant as you want to be, and yet still receive the same privileges. Wouldn’t it be interesting if everyone who voted had to pass a test on how the government functions first? Ironically, jury duty isn’t voluntary, it’s obligatory, which is how I found myself sitting in a room on an uncomfortable chair on a Wednesday morning.

I’ve been summoned for jury duty before, but two words have always resulted in me being excused. One is “bartender,” and the other is “journalist.” I don’t know exactly why the court system doesn’t want either on a jury, and neither is an excused category, but I’ve never even made it past the first round.

Our group was informed that we had to stay in that blank room until the judge in a courtroom downstairs decided whether we were needed. We were also informed that we wouldn’t be getting the $15-a-day stipend for jurors unless we were actually selected for the jury. The same went for the 30-cents-a-mile mileage allowance (one way). It was different if we were a government employee however, then we would receive our full salary.

That last part caught me off guard. And not just me.

“Full salary?” someone asked. “Why is that?”

The administrator paused and then said, without a trace of irony: “Because government employees shouldn’t be penalized for doing their civic duty.”

I guess the rest of us didn’t matter.

It’s almost as if the rules for serving on a jury are designed to omit certain people. What if a person has a job that doesn’t have paid time off? Or someone has a child/parent who needs special care? Or you’re someone who lives in an extremely expensive area to rent and simply cannot afford to take an unpaid midweek day off to sit around for half a day for free? Those people are all offered exceptions. But aren’t those the people we actually want on juries?

Furthermore, why make it so uncomfortable? Our little room was right down the hall from the public library. Why not let us hang out in the library? We could read, work, watch videos, whatever. But instead, they seem to go to great lengths to make it as unattractive as possible. And then come the questions.

“What do you do for a living?”

Why does that matter?

There was a class I took in journalism school that used the image of the famous “Dewey defeats Truman” newspaper headline that appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune in November 1948. Our instructor had told us that the paper had used a phone survey to assess who would win. The problem was that phones were an expensive item then, and so merely just owning a phone skewed the entire sample — wrongly apparently.

As I sat there in my sweats and hoodie — no tank top nor shorts — I’d show them. I wondered how it’s that I can get automatically placed into a jury pool but I can’t automatically be registered to vote. Or why do I have to pick a political party? Can’t I just be agnostic?

“Does this say ‘journalist’?” asked one of the administrative types in the second room, after squinting at my handwriting for a minute or two.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Slash bartender?” she added.

“Yes,” I replied.

“You’re excused,” she said.

I gathered up my items and prepared to leave. But I couldn’t resist one parting shot at a system I felt was designed to inconvenience.

“I guess I’m too smart to be a juror,” I said, trying to be funny.

The administrator looked at me blankly over her face mask.

“Or not smart enough,” she said.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• Privileges without responsibilities often results in a bunch of spoiled whiners.

• Freedom from? Or freedom to? That’s the question.

• Jack F. Kennedy was right. These days, there are far too many people screaming about their rights without asking about their responsibilities.

• I did write this column while sitting there, so there’s that.

• Once you take tips and satisfaction out of the service equation, things can get pretty ugly, pretty quickly.