The notice had been on the center island in the kitchen for a month with all the other important papers I was deliberately avoiding. I was very careful to occasionally move the notice to a place of prominence among the piles to give it its proper due.
No matter how I tried, though, this was one piece of paper I couldn’t ignore. Why? Because it was a summons to report for jury duty at Montgomery County District Court.
Popular opinion likens this type of summons to a trip to the DMV on steroids. Each person you tell has a tip for you. Everything from “tell them you hate cops” to “just act crazy.” I smiled and nodded at these suggestions but was not sure how to actually impart any preconceived prejudice or possible mental illness to the powers that be.
I have artfully dodged this call to duty my entire life. As I near the half-century mark, I should be either extremely proud of or extremely embarrassed by this accomplishment.
In my 20s I switched states and residences often enough that I never got called. In my 30s I was either pregnant, post-partum or home with three kids under the age of 5. Even the Montgomery County judicial system knew better than to mess with a sleep deprived, hormonal juror. I am not 100 percent sure that I am any less sleep deprived or hormonal today than I was then, but I rode that train for as long as I was able.
A few years ago, I called the listed number the night before I was to report and was dismissed. So I correctly surmised that I would not get that lucky this time around. It was like salt in the wound, however, when they dismissed 376 and above. My number was 375.
Not to worry. I had my ace in the hole. I had been asked to report on a Monday, and I was scheduled for outpatient eye surgery the following Friday. I didn’t have to act crazy, I had a doctor’s note. Heck, I had a whole folder of instructions, notes, dates and times. I practically skipped through the security checkpoint all but boasting, “See you in an hour suckers!”
My husband, who actually served on a one-day trial years ago, warned me that it would not be simple to get out of the jury pool. The woman who heard the excuses was a governmental equivalent to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. “No contact with the outside world — jury for you, three days!”
Surely this gatekeeper would respect my shiny medical folder, the little card with my scheduled surgery date and time. My referral for blood work. It was all so medical and necessary.
Before I could worm my way out, I had to check-in. When I presented my summons, the workers cackled as they commented on how close I was to being dismissed. In that moment, the folder was like a bullet in my bag, and I really wanted to do some damage with it.
A wonderful, warm lady came to welcome us and treated us to a shtick akin to the warm-up for a talk show. She had one-liners, animated facial expressions and a sheer determination to single-handedly change the image of the judicial system at the jury level.
Dim the lights for the big video, and immediately the room was aglow with 375 smart phones as the caged animals were desperate for any contact with the free world.
Finally, they invited us to the front of the room to present our lame excuses for escape, and about 30 or so folks joined me to shuffle toward the desk and the woman who serves as judge and jury for the holding room.
I was close enough to the front to hear the first woman meekly detail her business trip that afternoon with the addition of a pre-paid airline ticket. She even offered the itinerary as Exhibit A. The woman in charge smiled sweetly and slid a calendar toward her and asked her to pick an alternate date.
I mentally slammed on the breaks. Where was the gavel coming down and declaring this an unfit reason and denying the request with a flourish? The entire line shifted forward a little, scanning the scene to verify this unexpected turn of events.
The potential juror was dumbstruck as well by this subtle nicety and was immediately on guard. Everyone in line suspected that this was some sort of trick. Maybe all the available dates were during Christmas week or over Fourth of July. Surely they could not just be allowing an escape with an option to pick a new, suitable date. The 2013 calendar swam before their dazed eyes with the realization that this new, iron clad date was on the books from here forward preventing scheduling issues or any future dismissal.
Citizen after citizen stepped up and was treated warmly and respectfully, leaving me disoriented and somewhat disappointed. Even the impossibly flimsy excuses were acted on with consideration. A brash young woman stepped forward and declared between loud pops of her gum that she had a graduate business class that night in Baltimore that was mandatory. Really? Is that all you’ve got?
I expected this was the moment it would all come together as I suspected. But no, the calendar was offered to her and she was gone with one last swish of vinyl as she triumphantly strapped on her backpack.
No one wanted to see my shiny folder, slips of paper or even the official referral for blood work. I was waved off with the promise of a maximum two-day trial and slunk to my seat to wait it out with the masses.
A friend from grade school, by coincidence, was called the same day and had the decorum not to comment when I returned to my chair next to her. Only moments before I had slid past her seat, headed for a sure exit, said my goodbyes with promises of getting together in the near future to catch up. Now, apparently, we had all the time in the world.
After another hour of chatting, watching groups of folks head to their assigned court room and eating pistachios I scraped up from the bottom of my bag, the unworthy stragglers — I among them — were released. All told, I had been there for four hours.
After pocketing my measly $15, I emerged from the courthouse and blinked in the bright sunlight. I was free and none the worse for the wear. That is if you don’t count my wounded pride for having misjudged the entire process initially.