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The XX Files

America the Beautiful



Bush is the nation's BMOC, swaggering around as if the world were his campus, despite record high disapproval ratings. The Republican-led Congress, also tanking in the polls, is a bunch of power-drunk frat boys who can't keep their wandering hands off the Constitution. But the judiciary? The third branch of government? That's the branch for me.

The judicial branch --- as I saw it when I arrived for jury duty last month --- is the 90s male of the three branches of government. It wants you to know it cares. It doesn't swagger. It doesn't grope. Eager to please, thanks to sensitivity training by the American Bar Association and some states' efforts, the jury system is more user-friendly, accommodating.

Sitting in the jurors' lobby on a sunny Friday morning, surrounded by 125 people in various stages of misery, I twitched with excitement. Finally! I'll get to be a juror. I'll mete out justice! I'll sway 11 angry men with my brilliant liberal arguments. I will --- dare I hope? --- change the world.

Like a desperate contestant on The Bachelor, I had dressed to seduce: in this case, bland "normal" clothes. I feared my typical look --- vintage-dress-over-jeans or fuck-you all-black --- would surely get me disqualified during the voir dire, when both lawyers interview potential jurors. In beige and pink with a touch of lace, I was an open-minded flower, the kind of girl defense attorneys and prosecutors crave.

The cheerful jury administrator welcomed us and listed the many ways jury duty has become more efficient. But first she said all legal excuses for avoiding serving had recently been abolished, as if every person in the room didn't already know that.

"I'll bet this is the first time for most of you," she said. The unwilling jury virgins --- mostly white, mostly working-to-middle-class --- slumped lower in their seats.

Not me. "Pick me, pick me!" I urged her silently. The people beside me edged away.

She continued. Not long ago jurors had to sit in a smaller, windowless room for two weeks waiting to be picked. Now we have all this. With a Vanna White sweep of her hand, she indicated the dozen windows, the lunchroom, and the photographic history of Rochester on display. In addition, she said, jury duty now lasts only one week. And you can call the night before to see if you're needed. We don't waste your time!

"If you have any comments or questions, please let us know," she said sincerely. "We're here to serve you."

Then the TVs flickered on for a video presentation. You can always tell how much an institution wants your love by how well-produced its production is. Bush's Social Security tour, or his Mission Accomplished debacle, or his ; the TV-and-Internet campaign by GE; and now the jury system's ads and video.

Harrison Ford stars in ABA ads nationally and Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes narrates the slick, 20-minute film shown in the Monroe County jurors' lobby. It starts with a scene of medieval justice --- a grimy mob throwing a man into the river. If he sinks he's innocent, if he floats he's guilty. The poor guy sinks and has to be dragged out and revived to celebrate the verdict.

The video goes on to appeal to our sense of history (the Ancient Greeks thought up this nifty system!), our self-interest (that could be you up on the stand someday!), and our egos (your vote means more here than in elections!). (Actually, wiping my ass meant more than my vote in 2000.)

We were divided into four groups. Three groups were whisked off to courtrooms. The lucky ones would go on to brilliant futures as jurors. Maybe they'd even sit on the trial of a celebrity molester, a murderer ex-Klansman, or a serial killer.

There were 30 of us left. We would be called to our courtroom soon, the cheerful administrator promised.

We were not called in the first hour.

We were not called in the second hour.

We were not called in the third hour.

By 4 p.m., my group resembled that medieval mob we'd seen in the video six hours earlier. All day, while we waited to be called, we'd watched the others come and go. Some had sat on juries and decided their cases already, others swapped tips for flunking the voir dire. (Say all rapists should be castrated. Say some of your best friends are the defendant's sex/race/religion/shoe size.)

As the hours passed, my mood had gone from eager to contemplative to bored to drooling. At this point my mind was moving in lazy loops around the words "jury" and "duty."



Duty sounds like doo-dee.

Reporting for duty. That's what John Kerry said at the Democratic Convention. John Kerry said doo-dee!

Then, the cruelest cut: Everyone was dismissed --- except for my group, of course.

"Come on, let us go!" one woman shouted toward the desk where the administrator cowered.

"Tell the judge we're not happy," a jocular man in a golf shirt said, not sounding very jocular. "This is a waste of my time."

I worried the mob would throw her into the river and not wait to see if she sank or floated. I worried I'd never get my chance to sit on a jury.

Wedding bells tolled at the church across the street as, moments later, we were summoned to the courtroom. This was it! I refreshed my lipstick and patted my hair the way I'd seen older women do. I think it's for good luck.

Two male lawyers watched as we entered the courtroom. This was my Miss America Pageant moment. I held my head high, like Lady Justice herself, except without the blindfold. I tried not to look too smart or dumb or tall or fat.

Wait. Which is more average --- fat or thin? To cover all the bases, I alternated between sucking in and pushing out my stomach as I walked.

I was in. How could I not be? It was a match made in heaven. The jury system, remade as an eager-to-please groom, weds the ultimate citizen --- a blandly attired bride with a bit of drool dried on her cheek.

But what was this? The groom stood me up at the altar? It couldn't be! Rather than choosing the 16 potential jurors based on their desire to change the world or their unique ability to morph between thin and fat while walking, the court chose them alphabetically.

How arbitrary. And typically male. Through tears I watched as Abrams, Agnello, and the not-so-jocular man in the golf shirt were called to the jury box. What does he have that I don't have? I sniffed.

What he had, it turns out, is the perfect name. His name was America. Had he changed his name? Or just been born lucky? Either way, Mr. America had it all: alphabetical dominance, patriotic appeal, and he'd even played hard to get earlier when he yelled at the administrator. I never had a chance.

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