On a rainy day, I show up for jury duty, five minutes before the appointed time. It is 8:40 in the morning. The midcentury-era building, constructed out of smooth blocks of concrete and dotted by windows, looms large.
The building sits on a busy street with four lanes of traffic going one way. Across from it: several bail bonds businesses, their signs a garish mix of fonts. In contrast, the building feels solemn; on its granite-carved façade is the San Francisco city seal. Two men look out from either side of a shield, a phoenix rising out of flames above them. Below the seal the words “Hall of Justice” are chiseled and filled in with gold. I think briefly of the Super Friends’ striking headquarters of the same name (though to be fair, the San Francisco building came first). This Hall of Justice, though imposing, is plain and utilitarian. Below the name of the building: “To the faithful and impartial enforcement of the laws.”
Through the metal detector, up three flights of stairs, and down the hall, I find the jury assembly room. I wait in line to check in and find a place to sit down.
The room is large, but thankfully not cut off from natural light, which filters in through a row of windows. Black and white photos of historic San Francisco adorn the walls — but not at eye level, placed high so you have to look up at them, of buildings viewed from a distance, so that any people in them are just specks. Two TVs, much too small for such a big room, are mounted high at the front of the room. The room was not designed with comfort in mind; in fact, its lack of remarkable features makes it feel like it wasn’t designed at all.
Then there are the row and rows of serviceable red chairs, and in them, every type of person.
Not that long ago, this was not the case. For most of America’s history, justice was the sole purview of white men. Even the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended the right to vote to all men (on paper, if not in practice), did not confer political rights, like jury service; it was only in 1935, in Norris v. Alabama, that the Supreme Court ruled that the systematic exclusion of African Americans from jury service violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
But what about those of us who were not black or white, like me? In 1854, California’s Supreme Court ruled that Chinese people, like other nonwhites, could not testify against whites in court, a ruling that overturned the conviction of a white man for the murder of a Chinese miner. They most certainly could not serve on juries or vote.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” What makes an impartial jury? This answer did not come until 1942, when the Supreme Court held in Glasser v. United States that a “fair cross-section” of the community was necessary for an impartial jury. Still, in practice some states continued to find ways to exclude people of color from jury pools into the 1960s.
Women of all races and ethnicities were also long excluded from juries. We were supposed to be taking care of the children; we were not worldly enough; our delicate ears should be shielded from criminal details; and it was improper, perhaps even damaging, for us to sit with men during trials. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave all persons—even women—the right to serve on federal juries, but it wasn’t until 1968 when Mississippi became the last state to change its laws, so that women in all 50 states could serve on state juries too. Yet women were required to opt in for jury service in some states when men were not. In 1975, the Supreme Court ruled this practice unconstitutional in Taylor v. Louisiana.
That was just a few years before I was born. Today, nearly 200 people are gathered in this room with me. Jury duty is supposed to be a cross-section of society, and at least at the beginning stage of the process, this feels true. (In the end, though, people of color are still underrepresented in the jury box.)
A woman comes in to play a video for us. It’s like an infomercial, full of testimonials from jurors who share their astonishment at how much fulfillment they felt in their jury duty service.
Then a man takes roll, reading aloud the names of all 180-something people in the room one by one, alphabetically by last name, even though each of us checked in at the front desk. This inefficient practice somehow charms me; I think I find the ceremony of it appealing, listening to him read name after name for about 10 minutes.
I hadn’t known how long I’d be here, so I brought a book and snacks. I’m reading Kiese Laymon’s book of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, a book about family, coming of age in Mississippi, race, and violence, told from a Southern black male perspective. The man to the right of me is reading on his Kindle; the woman to the left just sits.
The judge enters the room and approaches the podium in his black robe and glasses and explains what we should expect. He emphasizes how members of a jury must render a verdict based solely on the evidence. Jurors cannot talk to anyone about the trial while it is taking place, he cautions. He emanates an earnest kind of pride about our system, the nobility of jury duty service.
In the moment, I feel swayed by the judge’s words. I do not disagree.
In Laymon’s essay “Reasonable Doubt and the Lost Presidential Debate of 2012,” he imagines himself moderating a debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. He has a question about the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, legislation that narrows the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. “While this was long overdue,” Laymon imagines himself asking Obama, “wouldn’t a real Fair Sentencing Act also ensure that elite American colleges, universities, and gated communities are policed for drug use, drug abuse, and drug distribution as much as urban areas currently are policed — especially since most incarcerated Americans are poor black and brown nonviolent drug offenders?”
The judge tells us the name of the case, a man versus the state, a criminal case. I wonder who the defendant is, the circumstances of his life that led him into the criminal justice system, and now to voir dire.
When I worked in education, I saw how black students received punishment more often than students of other races. In a city that’s only about 5 percent black and 15 percent Latino, San Francisco’s juvenile hall is overwhelmingly filled with black and brown boys. Each day, they are marched in line from their cells to the in-jail school, the buzz of security doors clicking behind them. The English teacher kept a pile of stuffed animals for them to place on their desks or hold during class. They are only children.
In the jury assembly room, we are instructed to stand and take an oath. The judge informs us that those who are selected to serve should expect the trial to take five weeks, and that we will report for service four days out of the week.
Who can afford to take 20 days off of work?
After answering some questions—“What if I have a vacation planned?” a woman asks—the judge leaves the room and the man who took roll returns. Should serving on this jury create a hardship (financial, medical, or something else), there is a form to complete, he says. Otherwise, we are to answer a questionnaire and report back to this room in a week.
We pick up our forms and quietly fill them out. People hand them in and trickle out of the room. I finish my paperwork and walk down the hall past obsolete phone booths set into the wall. In the lobby I pause to don my rain gear. Three hours have passed since I entered the building and it is still raining outside. I walk out into the light rain.
Minutes is a regular Popula column, in which we explore the banal and mundane places where the grunt-work of society happens, where the public goes into public and meets itself.