Potter Stewart was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1958 to 1981. When explaining his test for pornography and obscenity, he famously coined the phrase: “I know it when I see it.” Less famously he defined ethics as “knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”
The Potter Stewart Courthouse in Cincinnati, Ohio is located on East 5th street, between Walnut and Main. This bulky, utilitarian building takes up the entire city block. The main downtown bus depot is in front. I walked passed people in familiar restaurant uniforms waiting for their bus, standing under brightly lit canopies, staring at phones. I would have traded places with them, would have scooped rubber chicken bits into cardboard bowls willy-nilly for a week of Sundays if it meant getting out of jury duty.
I found myself in room 917, the Jury Assembly Room and waited to speak to Jury Clerk Natalie. I made note of the well-stocked break area in the back, its granola bars, industrial-sized coffee maker and basket of peppermints. When it was my turn, Jury Clerk Natalie greeted me, gave me paperwork, took back the paperwork and filled it out for me, returned the paperwork to me, took it back again, filed it neatly in a drawer and asked me if I had my paperwork.
Prospective jurors filled the rows of closely-touching chairs: young and old, teachers, small business owners, men and women in suits, retirees, khaki-panted call center employees. A young man, balding but not ready to let go of his stringy blonde hair, sat next to me. We spoke only once, sharing a love for and a plan to stock up on peppermints. 35 of the 40 people summoned ended up reporting for duty. Uncertain of the fate of the five no-shows, I still envied them, out there, free to both will and nill with reckless abandon.
The energetic and likable Jury Clerk Natalie welcomed us. Without revealing my identity, she thanked me for my voicemail regarding cell-phones. (They were now permitted. She had left me a voicemail that morning letting me know.) She said she was grateful for the feedback and would make the notification more clear. As Jury Clerk’s Pet, I was happy to remain anonymous and avoid the scorn of the other prospective jurors.
She told courtroom stories. Most didn’t seem to have an ending, but they helped pass the time. She prepared us for the next steps: we would head down to the courtroom where the judge and attorneys would ask us questions to determine if we could be fair in our decisions. This process is known as voir dire, an old legal phrase meaning an oath to tell the truth.
Many people brought up concerns about being able to serve if they were selected. Excuses ranged from child care and scheduled vacations to important meetings at work. The judge would sort it out, said Jury Clerk Natalie.
I couldn’t think of a single legitimate reason why I might not be able to be a juror, but it didn’t matter as much anymore. Jury Clerk Natalie enjoyed her job and took pride in the court. Her happiness was contagious. Like a stale onion bagel warmed for a few seconds in the microwave, my hardened heart began to soften.
We watched a video of interviews with past jurors and judges. I started to see myself as a juror, listening to the facts of the case, limiting myself to the evidence presented at trial, maybe rubbing my chin thoughtfully. I imagined a montage of eight or more people, myself included, deliberating in a small room. We would gesture, plead, throw wadded napkins in frustration, but soon enough, raise our hands in unanimous agreement, laugh, clink beer bottles, throw a Frisbee and hug, all in slow motion and accompanied by the triumphant brass of Fanfare for the Common Man.
Jury Clerk Natalie assigned each of us a random number. We lined up by that number, walked down two flights of stairs to the seventh floor and entered the small, windowless courtroom. The lawyers and other participants stood with hands clasped, smiling stiffly and watching us closely. Jury Clerk Natalie shuffled and squeezed us into benches like so many sardines with coffee breath. Then she left and I’m proud to say I handled the anxiety of separation with dignity.
The judge opened by asking us to tell her of any issues that might prevent us from serving on the jury. Few responded. The gentleman next to me told the judge that he was on his way to vacation in Florida when he decided to check his mailbox one last time. He found the summons and realized he would have to cancel his trip. He shrugged it off. Jury duty was important to him, he said. The rest of us gave him a nod that said, “right on.” We the potential jury remained steadfast in our resolve to see this crucial civic duty carried out to completion. We were ready to do this thing.
“Now, I’d like to tell you about this case,” the judge began. Our eyes lit up. What was this exceptional case that called so many of us in at the eleventh hour of our service period? Perhaps it was a complicated case of corporate espionage laced with political intrigue, with twists and turns right before each commercial … rather, bathroom break? Maybe even, heaven forbid but God willing, a murder with characters and situations so complex it would require every ounce of our juristic insight to glean the truth?
What wrong would we put right as only this special gathering of wise men and women could do?