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A reader writes … By Brian McNeece

February 19, 2001

Do you dread that notice that asks you to put your life on hold and answer the call of civic duty for God and country? I'm not talking about military duty; I'm talking about that great leveler of men and women — jury duty.

Teachers like me (and others in the public sector) can't beg off because of economic hardship. Others, however, must tell their tragic tales in front of God and country as to why jury duty is a hardship to be avoided like a roomful of people with the flu.

Today's judges are patsies, I fear, for those of us who whine and fuss about how we're just so pressured about our loss of income that we can't stand to be in this uncomfortable seat for another minute. I am sympathetic; don't get me wrong. But if you're 32 years old in a two- income family and you've never served on a jury, well, when will there be a convenient time?

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Recently I was sitting in seat number 13 in the jury box listening to all manner of creative ways to get off. Some were legitimate. For example, a single mother who is going to college and working part-time can come back when she's more capable.

On the other hand, many full-time folks claimed that missing four days of work would force them to miss various looming payments and might even capsize their ship of state. (Interestingly, nobody griped that his absence from work would cost his employer money.) I wondered if that many people really live so hand-to-mouth that their bills would go unpaid after four days.

That's close to the bone.

At first the judge denied these requests, but then he kept opening the door again, saying, "If you believe that your loss of income will distract you so much that you will not be able to listen carefully in court, that you will not be able to render a fair and impartial verdict, then you need to tell me. I leave it up to you."

I was amazed at how long it took for most of these unwilling prospective jurors to get the message. Read the judge's lips. If you don't want to be here that badly, say the magic words: "I can't judge this case." Instead they mumbled and hesitated, edging little by little like a diver on a high dive until they realized they had to take the plunge and publicly commit themselves to their position of economic woe.

"You're excused," said the judge.

Come on, judge. Tighten up!

Another fellow swiftly circumvented the laborious avoidance dance others did. "I wish to be excused from jury duty because of my religious beliefs."

"What religious beliefs are those, sir?" asked the judge.

"My religion doesn't allow me to judge another man," replied the fellow. "It conflicts with my beliefs as a Christian."

I was surprised. Gallup surveys show that about 85 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, but of about 30 prospective jurors, he was the only one to use the Christian plea. The judge immediately excused the gentleman without any of his usual follow up questions. Y eso?

It wasn't a capital case. We weren't going to send a man to heaven or hell. In fact, the defendant had already accepted liability. We were just going to decide if he owed the plaintiff money for injuries suffered in an auto accident the defendant had admittedly caused. No matter. You say you have religious beliefs? You may be excused.

I wondered how such a guy could live. He couldn't do my job. I'm judging my fellow man day by day with quizzes and tests and that all important final grade at the end of the semester. I have to admit that in many cases, I do anguish over what grade to assign a student. It's not pleasant to fail a student and sentence him to another three months of hard labor at the same materials. But that comes with the job.

Where does this good Christian draw his line of judging? Could he be an umpire or referee at his kids' games?

"Strike! No, I mean ball! I can't do it. As God is my witness, I cannot judge thee. Take thy base."

Does he think he can't judge the friends his children bring home, or will he accept a drugged-out violence-prone delinquent for his daughter's boyfriend?

No one is suggesting that he throw stones. But if we don't accept our duties and responsibilities as citizens of a nation built on equality and participation in civic affairs, who will do it? Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, said the Christ. In a democracy, we the people are the judges and officers appointed in all the gates (Deuteronomy 16:18). Get thee into the jury box, citizen. For God and country.

(Brian McNeece is an El Centro resident and English instructor at Imperial Valley College.)

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