Night Court, by Candance Booth | Jury Duty in a Sleepy Town

EVERY WEEKDAY MORNing at 7 a.m., while I make my lunch for the day, I watch TV reruns of Northern Exposure. Sometimes I interrupt the process to make a pot of tea or some breakfast, and then I catch a little of the show for the next time slot. Last month it changed from Quincy (episodes about Jack Klugman as a forensic medical doctor) to Night Court (episodes about Harry Anderson as a municipal court judge). So it was an interesting coincidence that I was called to jury duty for the city of Lakeway last month, and even more of a coincidence that instead of reporting for the regular day session, I was asked to report for the 6–8 p.m. night session.

First of all, I didn’t realize Lakeway had a municipal court. We only got a post office last summer. Lakeway is a small, sleepy town built largely around retirees. It has three golf courses, a water tower that looks like a giant golf ball on a tee, and a couple of country clubs. The rigorously enforced speed limit for anywhere in Lakeway is 30 m.p.h., probably based on the fact that golf carts can’t go much faster than that. Also, if you were to hit one of the 20,000 or so deer living in Lakeway, it would be unsightly and put a damper on your game.

Second of all, who would have guessed there was enough crime in Lakeway to warrant an evening court. There’s no homeless, no hookers, no liquor stores. All high school students, as far as I can tell, belong to either cheerleading or volleyball teams. About the only way you can get into trouble around there is to drive too fast past some cops who don’t have a whole lot to do.

I arrived at court a few minutes early and stood around with the other jurors. Actually there was one criminal in the bunch: a young woman, blond, short, looked about 32, and I’m guessing she was married to someone who worked for a living and supported her, because she didn’t seem . . . how can I explain . . . .

She was at court to turn in proof that she took a defensive driving class. She took defensive driving in order to have her traffic ticket waved. My guess is that she was negotiating the tricky country club parking lot in her Lexus V8 Land Cruiser and got a little excited by the demanding terrain. So anyway, she started telling us about her experience with the defensive driving exam, which she took on the Web.

“When you get ready to take the test,” Debbie says, [Debbie is not her real name, but don’t you think it likely?], “they ask all these really personal questions, to prove who you are, so you don’t cheat and get someone else to take the test. They’re really personal questions. Stuff no one else would know.”

Now, being as how I’ve been documenting security in the computer world for the last two years, this gets my attention. Debbie continues talking to everyone around us about the test questions, but my mind starts crunching away on the concept of a personal question that no one but you would know.

There are databases out there with just about everything there is to know about you, and the databases are all cross linked—your bank account numbers, your address, stats on your family, your social security number. For crying out loud, every insurance agent in the country calls my “unlisted” phone number with a personalized invitation for a cheap rate. So I’m crunching on this. I think maybe they ask something like, “What side of the bed do you sleep on Debbie?” Or, “Debbie, do you fold your toilet paper or bunch it?”

Finally, I can’t stand it any more, and I interrupt Debbie. “Tell me something,” I say. “What kind of question is so personal no one but you knows the answer? I mean, if it’s so personal, how do they know what the correct answer is? Give me an example.”

And Debbie says, “They ask what your mother’s maiden name is.”

I ended up laughing out loud quite a lot that night. The single case being tried concerned a retired gentlemen who had been ticketed for going 33 m.p.h. in a 30 m.p.h. zone. He pleaded not guilty and was representing himself. As the judge explained to all the potential jurors, Texas law says that any case, no matter how small, is entitled to trial by jury. In fact jury trial is the default, and you actually have to elect to waive that option. So the prosecutor stands up and starts giving us jurors the old Vino Ditto (or some Latin phrase like that). It means they start weeding out the jurors who might side with the defendant. In this case most of us were suspect when he asked how many of us had ever received a ticket. I guess this was supposed to indicate which of us would vote against the police testimony. I laughed really loudly then, because a whole bunch of people didn’t raise their hand. Yeah, right. And they don’t play golf, either.

When the defendant stood up, I was glad I was juror number 26 and not likely to end up on the trial. The guy was about 75 years old, wearing some jeans and a red flannel shirt. The judge had to keep coaching him on what to do. He looked at the potential jurors and said, “Well, I guess I don’t have any questions. Just as long as none of you are lawyers or policemen.” Then he sat down.

“Perhaps you’d better put that question to them and get an actual answer,” the judge coached. So the man slowly got up again (he seemed a little arthritic) and put his question to us. And of course there were three or four lawyers and a couple of cops hiding amongst the troops. “Thanks for that suggestion,” the man said to the judge. “Nothing personal,” he said to the lawyers and cops. That made me laugh really loudly again.

They only needed six people as jurors, and after the rest of us were off the hook, we were allowed to leave. Thinking back, I sort of wished I’d hung around. But I was afraid it was going to be a bit painful. I couldn’t imagine, for example, listening to this whole trial (which the judge said usually runs about 1.5 hours) and then convening into a room to discuss whether this guy was guilty. It’s a stupid 30 m.p.h. traffic ticket, for heaven’s sake. I was reading the juror instruction sheet, and it says if you feel you need more information from a witness, you can ask the judge to get the info for you. And I know if I’d been on the jury and that old man didn’t think of it, I would have asked a question. I would have asked whether the state can present evidence that shows a radar gun, particularly on hills and curves like you have in Lakeway, has an accuracy range that tight. I guess we’ll never know, now.

Poor Debbie. I suppose I found her guilty of supreme naiveté. I mean, really. I can probably find out her mother’s maiden name by looking it up on Yahoo. But maybe if she’d had a jury trial, she would have been able to weed me out or at least lessen her punishment. After all, she probably doesn’t know what her mother’s maiden name is. Probably she keeps track of her own name by putting it on her personalized license plate. It’s all a question of awareness. Different levels of awareness.

The full moon eclipse
drove some into their cave
avoiding the association
with the tainted female.
She was judged unpure.

But I stood out in the dark,
the cats running excitedly
up and down the black street.
My head was tilted to watch
my shadow as it passed
across the moon’s face.

This was my sister. Her
monthly flux has never been
an object of my concern.
I act as my own judge,
and in this night court,
she is cleared of all charges
and everyone walks away free.

Visit the Index for more essays by Candance Booth and other witty Iowa writers.