Involuntary Servitude

In theory the USA is a country which detests slavery. Well, not counting welfare, bonds, the IRS, the EPA, public schools, and addictive entitlements that remind us of opium dens in old San Francisco.

I am talking about being forced, literally, into involuntary servitude, complete with being told where you will be, when, what you will do at all times until you are manumitted–which could, theoretically, be your seventieth birthday if you annoyed the wrong overseer–what you will wear, when you may speak and what you may say, lockdowns, and restrictions on to whom you can talk and what you can read in some instances on pains of large, capricious fines and jail sentences.

I’m bound to have been busted by at least one of you. Yeah, I got a summons to be a juror and have been informed that if I am not there on the dot of 1:15 p.m. on March 16th I can be fined a thousand dollars–presumably a day–until I am in the appointed place at the appointed hour, properly contrite, wearing clothing “reasonably befitting the dignity and solemnity of the court proceedings.” Word of a Traynham, that is a direct quote. One immediate thought was of Charles Rangel, who is always impeccably and expensively garbed, something which is a great deal easier to do when one is on the take and does not pay taxes, no doubt. Perhaps Barney Frank or Nancy Pelosi should be taken as examples of the connection between civic duty and haberdashery?

My next thought on mandatory duty uniforms/sartorial standards was that I lead a very quiet country life, these days. On my rare trips to town I am usually upholstered in a good velour “jogging outfit” by someone like DKNY (That being cutting edge around here for having “dressed” for those who do not wear suits to their offices. Garb most places runs to tee shirts, shorts, and flip-flops.) I’ve got my Madame DeFarge get-ups/widow’s weeds, if a black tunic and silky slacks are befitting the dignity of County Court at Law 2. Finally, for this time of year there is my “spring and summer weddings suit,” a symphony of peach, cream, and brown…but entirely too dressy for other daytime events, and it is “ladylike and traditional” but not “solemn.”

What does the well-dressed juror wear, and how many different outfits are sufficient to maintain the dignity of the court, given that we have no idea how long the trial will last? Is it contempt of court to wear the same thing throughout a trial? Are we supposed to go shopping every day after we are dismissed until nine ack emma to purchase something different until we have, say, two week’s worth of dignified, solemn outfits? Would the Judge disapprove of a nice black robe with a lace collar like Judge Judy? Almost certainly. Hmmm…I think the widow’s weeds with a seven by four foot swathe of black chiffon belly-dancing veil drapped mysteriously over my head and shoulders, go for the Indira Gandhi look? An ankle bracelet with bells would be a little over the top, as would zils (those tiny brass finger cymbols.) I could alternate with my black wool military beret with our clan badge in sterling where a military flash would go…if questioned I would reply regally, “My grandmother taught me that if you wear a hat it means you think the occasion is important.” Well, she did. It also saves time dressing one’s hair. Are young men who do not own suits obliged to buy them? Where does this stop? Are professional manicures and pedicures required? I certainly think so. A special trip to the dentist to have one’s teeth cleaned?

Now we have to get serious (while my mind mulls over the correct jewelry to look deliberately like elitist scum eager to oppress the accused to induce the Defense Attorney to issue a peremptory challenge…) It would be very easy to get out of this until May 11th, after which I am exempt by reason of age; I have a very cooperative doctor. Nyah, that’s too simple. What’s the old joke? “Do you want to be judged by a group too dumb to get out of jury duty?” Sprezzatura. Being dressed at least one notch more formally than others is a power play that goes back to the times of nomadic tribes, but has the government the right to demand that citizens add to the panoply? Never mind that we like being the best-dressed person in a room, should Shang-Haied citizens be forced to buy “suitable” raiment to underscore the might of the judiciary?

The more I consider the outrage of the County daring to force me into slavery, the more Jeffersonian I became. I would dislike it excessively if chained to an uncomfortable chair for days on end without my iced tea and ash tray, unable to use a restroom when I wished, threatened with jail and fines if I spoke, and thinking of deep vein thrombosis. It would upset my elderly rescue dog, too, having her beloved Mama gone.

I neither know nor care what they pay for jury duty and would not accept it; my mind and my body are not for sale, and neither is my patriotism. If necessary they will find they can command my body by charging me a thousand dollars a day for seven weeks until my birthday (plus, no doubt, assorted additional fines for contempt of court), but they can not make me tell lies and they can not force me to consider the evidence before me if I am determined not to. How ludicrous, to fine or jail me on a charge of “not thinking.” There’s a precedent we would love to see applied to Congress and government at all levels.

I am really most unsuitable for Jury duty and Sonia Sotomayor actually said something sensible. We are, indeed, the products of our upbringings and experiences. Put that way, nobody other than the other jurors, possibly, and spectators will ever want me sitting in a jury box. Particularly not if I am in a righteous rage.

1. The defendant is entitled to “a jury of his peers,” and that certainly isn’t a good description of me. Few of us are replicated under the actual meaning of that term, which is “equals.” They could probably search all of Texas and not accumulate a jury of my peers. Candidates would have to be Caucasian, Christian, widowed, and very articulate. They would be required to read Egyptian hieroglyphics, play most of Chopin well, have been elected public officials, never have had as much as a parking ticket, write regularly for national audiences, raise registered dairy goats, be experts at Free Cell, design ecclesiastical regalia, collect jade and spices, be able to make Toll House Cookies without a recipe, and possess highly reprehensible senses of humor to go with tons of ethics and principles. Darn…thought we had one in Mineral Wells, but she only had “grade” goats and had never made cheese…the lady in Dripping Springs looked good, but she didn’t score well enough on the Miller Analogy Test for graduate admission. The man in Hondo almost made it, but he can’t tailor or teach phonics…

2. I cannot, in conscience, say other than that of course I am prejudiced against that surly fellow in orange prison coveralls and shackles on trial for robbery and aggravated assault. We have to believe (against considerable historical evidence) that all Sheriffs and Police are honest, well-trained, intelligent, thorough, and confident the evidence they will present is overwhelming. I don’t care how many people assure judges that they are capable of being fair and impartial, I don’t believe it–no matter what their life experiences have been. Do consider the OJ trial. I’m an equal opportunity bigot when it comes to those accused of murder, burglary, arson, and child and animal abuse. I don’t care what age, color, or species they are when it comes to violent crime.

It will be reasonable to suppose correctly that the lowlife in front of me is a very rotten apple, even if his previous offenses and juvenile record cannot be revealed to me because his records are sealed. Forcing me to be a juror puts him under the Code Napoleon, thereby violating his civil rights, not that I suppose he deserves any if he is guilty as charged, and if that doesn’t disqualify me nothing will. His lawyer would have to convince me of his client’s innocence unless it were obvious that the elected coroner were a fool and the arresting officer a liar, which has certainly been known to happen.

3. The Defending Attorney–particularly in a criminal case–will take one look at me and my curriculum vitae and shriek a peremptory challenge, thereby wasting everyone’s time and all that effort to look exotic, but solemn, dignified, and well-manicured and jeweled. He/she won’t have any doubt that I have not even a modicum of sympathy for lawbreakers, and that is more subtle than the traditional, “Sure, I think he deserves a fair trial and then we can take the guilty s.o.b. out and hang him.” (An acquaintance made that as a joke and the court martial was thrown out.)

4. However, that isn’t going to let some Assistant DA off the hook, either. If he has much sense or experience he will look at the same life and think, “Loose cannon!” Chortle. No foolin’ buddy. I’ve spent a lifetime around “terrorist types” like career military men, chairing committees and boards and being President of things and if I can’t get myself selected as Foreman of the Jury I will be very surprised. I will make the ADA’s life a living hell–legitimately–asking questions and demanding explanations couched in plain English, even if that means sending the Jury to the Police Academy or the local cow college to take classes. In general it takes three times to convince a new doctor that we aren’t going to quit asking for explanations in ordinary language until he provides them and I am relatively certain that the Court is obliged to produce all the information or tutors a jury requests. Spontaneous laughter…perhaps I should ask for Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. Sun Tzu on the art of war…I’m Okay, You’re Okay…to call in an expert in handwriting analysis (for character traits, not to determine if a check is a forgery.)

5. The Judge might like me, but he isn’t going to approve of me. Actually, I expect he is going to throw me out of his courtroom about fifteen seconds after I am asked if there is any reason I cannot be a fair and impartial juror, supposing I haven’t terrified one of the lawyers into excusing me. Goodness, no, I’m not going to run through items one through four.

I’m going to fling a piece of legal Kryptonite on the floor by saying that I must be assured there will be no jury nullification. At least many Judgies will flush beet red, begin banging their gavels in near apoplexy, and order the courtroom cleared and the entire jury pool dismissed because it has been “tainted.” Juries have enormous power but few jurors know that. Life is much simpler for the, um, justice system when we are ignorant.  In the classic phrase, a Grand Jury can indict a ham sandwich. This IS a serious, valid issue, and if you are going to disrupt your life for days, weeks, or months it is reasonable to expect that your verdicts will be honored.

Any jury I serve on is going to be very well-informed because I will infuriate everyone by insisting upon it.

I don’t want to hear any charges that I intend to shirk my “civic duty.” For one thing, it is my carefully-considered analytical opinion that I would make a dreadful juror, over and above falling asleep constantly because I’m a night owl who is rarely asleep before dawn and arises at the crack of noon if the matter is urgent. Imagine the poor Baliff having to nudge me awake frequently, and the Judge puzzling out whether or not my involuntary somnolance constitutes contempt of Court. (I have always wondered what would happen if someone said, “Judge, please double that fine. The one you imposed does not begin to express my contempt for this Court!” Possibly 18 months in prison and a $25,000 fine…or perhaps the Judge would prefer not to be a laughing stock nationally. I hope I have enough sense not to test the issue.)  This is a matter of my personal freedom to spend my time as I choose and not be subjected to my ideas of cruel and unusual punishment, including disturbing my sleep, refusing to allow me to smoke, threatening my vascular health, requiring total rigidity, and possibly reprimanding me for the frequent sneezing fits “dead” buildings always cause.

If I am “impressed,” like an American citizen by the British–a basic cause of the war of 1812–I will, of course, comply by showing up dressed with great formality…with a different needlework project every day to occupy my hands until the Judge says flat out that they can only remain folded in my lap, and I fire back that Miss Manners says that a lady may, with propriety, take her hand work anywhere.

If they treat me kindly I may not hang the jury. Goodness, if they can’t hang Khalid Sheik Mohammed after he confessed joyously or figure out that Nidal Hasssan was a terrorist, how can any DA hope to convince me beyond any doubt one way or the other? Malice? Heaven forfend! I would be surprised if it were not possible in any trial to find a rationale for voting for the outcome most likely to annoy big government. This is a matter of principle, that we must guard our freedoms zealously. Dr. Peter Haynes of the University of Hawaii’s Philosophy Department smiled approvingly when I embroidered or knitted in his classes rather than scribbling notes frantically…and I don’t think the current jury protocols even allow us to play cat’s cradle or paint our nails, far less do anything productive. Laughter…all right, I admit it: a major issue here is that I cannot abide just sitting and listening/watching. I read in my bath and while cooking and play computer games when on the telephone.

It is my opinion that government has no right to demand my compliance in the ways enumerated. If they want to compromise and give me a comfortable chair, freedom to walk     around, an ash tray, a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres at five, my lap top, possibly a jigsaw puzzle, and valet parking they may borrow my admittedly prejudiced mind between the hours of four p.m. and ten p.m., good dinners catered, since I am quite capable of attending to legalese and eating simultaneously.

They can broadcast the (archived) proceedings and I will watch on my laptop and send in my opinion. I think better between dark and dawn than I do before noon.

What they cannot do is seize my body, stuff it in a sealed building full of allergens, deny me my ubiquitous glass of iced tea while the Judge and the lawyers have glasses of water, and tell me I must sit there without moving or speaking, as though I were a child in Kindergarten, in defiance of several items on the Bill of Rights.

At least, they can’t do it without suffering the wrath of a very fertile, very determined mind.

The better part of valor would have been not publishing this article, lest the local Jury Coordinator and Judge take offense, since we all know they can make my life miserable. Somebody bail me out if I get thrown in the clink, please. Delighted laughter…my darling Charles would surely take my side (right or wrong) and end up in jail with me.

This is both funny and serious, and my idea of civic duty is standing up for the rights of the law-abiding amongst us, not coddling criminals by demanding complete rigidity and abuse of the citizenry.  I won’t make a good automaton. Any mother of three can be an Air Traffic Controller while dispensing the high, the middle, and the low justice to her brood and making potato salad. Put that way, yes, I am quite capable of rendering judgement on someone’s behavior even if my idea of a good punishment for children is reading Bill Bennett’s complete Book of Virtues and that Sheriff Joe Arpaio tends to be a little solicitous of the comfort of his prisoners.

Judge Whatsis and the Brazos County District Clerk do not have to appreciate my odd sense of humor and justice, they have only to accept that some of us are not inclined to swear oaths that we cannot honor.

Search your own minds and hearts. Are you capable of dispassionate, implacable decisions concerning the actions, motivations, and intentions of others, based upon the testimony of those whose job it is to seek retribution and justify their behavior? Are you capable of discerning lies from truth? Are you willing to accept the burden of decreeing life, death, or imprisonment on the basis of the testimony of strangers? Are you willing to stand up and insist that the decision of the Jury is final–at least until the first of numerous appeals?

What I find odd is that I think far too many of the guilty are let off on “plea bargains” to reduce the number of court cases. I support the death penalty and God help anyone I am called upon to render judgement against who has abused a child or an animal. All of which proves my point: by current standards, I am not anyone’s idea of an ideal juror.

Pfui. Perhaps I will take the easy way out and check myself into the cardiac ward of St. Joseph’s hospital next Monday.

Linda Brady Traynham
Whiskey & Gunpowder

March 12, 2010