Rants from the Hill: Trial by jury


"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert, published the first Monday of each month.

Whenever I receive a summons to jury duty I respond to it truthfully -- which is to say, I respond to it in ways that would appear to any normal person to be so opinionated, overzealous, and doctrinal as to appear slightly insane. But I rationalize that a functional democracy depends upon the candor of its citizens, and so I tell the questionnaire sent to me by the county exactly what I have on my mind. My wife, Eryn, suspects that my intemperate replies have prevented me from ever actually being called to join a jury, much as I've always wanted to serve. I, on the other hand, blame her family, which consists exclusively of public interest activists and cops, all of whom intersect with the judicial system in ways that make them biased -- though in their defense I'd observe that the biases cancel each other out, with one half of the family helping the same folks whom the other half of the family tackles and cuffs.

Recently, however, I was actually summoned to appear, a phrase I now love so dearly that I use it to call our young daughters to breakfast. On the morning I was to appear I was so excited at the prospect that I even dressed properly (clean denim constituting formal attire in the western Great Basin), and I gathered a legal pad, a pen, and -- just to be an especially responsible citizen -- an extra pen. Over breakfast I waxed rhapsodic to my rather bored daughters, extolling with unbridled enthusiasm the inspiring Jeffersonian virtues of our democratic judicial system. Now, at last, I would have my own hands on the wheels and pulleys of justice, working together with my fellow citizens to produce a fair outcome for some yet unknown person whose future would hang in the balance! As I descended the Ranting Hill in my old truck, I hollered joyfully out the window to the girls: "The Revolution was not fought for nothing!"

My patriotic fervor was instantly dampened by the scene I encountered upon arriving at the county seat. A line of people wrapped out the courthouse door and around the corner, and to a person they looked like they'd been up all night drinking cheap liquor. One portly man who was wearing rainbow-colored suspenders over a torn T-shirt had a ring with approximately 200 keys dangling from his belt down almost to the sidewalk. A young woman wearing work boots and Carhartt dungarees was also sporting what, even on the eve of 2013, could only be called a tube top. Another guy had a beard so long and grey that he had to have come either from ZZ Top or 1849. An otherwise respectable-looking middle-aged man wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches, which was fine, but on his head was a deerstalker -- that weird, double-brimmed hat that is worn only by people who are costumed as Sherlock Holmes for Halloween. When a middle-aged woman who looked like the only sane person in the lot turned around, her sweatshirt revealed an image of Minnie Mouse, pink bow in hair, arm up, and middle finger extended. These were my fellow citizens, which of course begged the question of what the criminals around here might look like.

Once inside the chambers with this motley bunch the judge and attorneys began the jury selection process, which I found fascinating. After all, it was easier to see why most of us should not be allowed to judge anybody rather than why we should. Soon enough the dismissals began. One man knew the witnesses. Another spoke no English. A woman swore very loudly that she'd have to pee every fifteen minutes for the duration of the trial. A young guy said he didn't believe in government at all but wanted the $40 per day they would pay us to serve. Then, to the considerable exasperation of the judge, the guy wearing the deerstalker explained, in a fake British accent, that he was urgently needed down at Area 51 to perform an autopsy on the remains of an alien whose wrecked saucer had recently been recovered by the NSA. I suddenly realized that I was the least weird person in the room. This was an entirely new experience for me, and I didn't like it one bit.

Well, on this went, with folks being dismissed left and right, until the plaintiff's attorney, informing the jury that one of the witnesses was a minister, asked if anybody was so biased against religion as to find it impossible to listen objectively to a minister's testimony. At this point approximately half of the few remaining potential jurors raised their hands, prompting the judge to intervene. "We aren't asking which church you attend, or even if you believe in a god. We're asking only if you can listen without bias to the testimony of a fellow citizen who happens to be a minister. This testimony will in no way be related to religion. Please raise your hand only if you remain so biased as to be unable to perform your civic duty here today." Now all the same hands went up, plus one more -- that of a hungover-looking guy who had apparently just woken back up.

At this point the judge, who was clearly aggravated, began a series of ambitious attempts to impress upon these recalcitrant would-be jurors the importance of their task. Did they understand that our judicial system is the envy of countries around the world, where people unjustly tried languish in prison simply for speaking their minds? The reply was a nodless sea of blank stares. Did they understand how rarely our citizens are asked to perform this civic duty, and how foundational it is to the principle of fairness upon which true justice depends? If anything, the jaws slackened a bit. At last the judge had recourse to baseball metaphors, which indicated pretty clearly that he was running out of ideas. "Would you say that an umpire in a baseball game couldn't be trusted to call balls and strikes simply because he believes in God?" Now, although the judge hadn't even asked for it, the same group of folks raised their hands again, a little higher this time, including the newly awakened guy and now even one more lady, who was wearing an  "Aces" baseball cap. The judge rocked back in his big leather chair and rubbed the temples of his lowered head between his thumb and forefingers. "Someday you will be at a barbecue or a ball game," he said slowly, in a very tense voice, "and you're going to hear people complain about what's wrong with our judicial system. Well, now you know. You're all dismissed!"

People think I'm joking when I say that I don't like leaving the Ranting Hill -- that I'd rather stay out here in the sticks than come to town, that if I had my way I might never come to town again. I'm a confirmed desert rat, and I'd rather be hungry and thirsty in a windstorm with a pack of coyotes than be in town for free dinner and drinks. But the dark side of this otherwise salutary isolation is that it may lead, incrementally, to the rainbow suspenders or the 1849 beard or the deerstalker. I understand that we are bound by a social contract -- that we have a civic duty to perform when the otherwise invisible state summons us to appear. But there is an odd sense in which these social relations seem abstract to those of us who live long enough in the remote desert, where we instead forge primary allegiances to canyons, silence, weather, night sounds, alpenglow, imagination, the smell of sage. We aren't joiners; on the contrary, we secede religiously. I don't mean to say that Henry Thoreau was necessarily right when he asserted "that government is best which governs least"; in fact, jury duty has caused me to wonder if our fierce independence may ultimately be a threat to forms of social organization, even those that are ultimately liberating rather than constraining.

It may be helpful to address this kind of question through use of RIs. RIs are "Rhode Islands," a unit of measurement we Great Basinians routinely use to convey the vastness of our place in the big West. For example, at more than 110,000 square miles, Nevada consists of roughly 100 RIs. The county in which I live, and from which I and my fellow jurors were randomly selected, has an RI factor of 6. What does it mean to live in a county six times the size of another U.S. state? It means that you might have to drive 300 miles through a snowstorm from your remote desert home up on the Oregon border down to the courthouse at the other end of the county to serve on a jury.

Seen in the shimmering light of this immense landscape, even a town with a courthouse comes to seem like an abstraction until -- and perhaps even after -- you've arrived there. Is it any wonder that some of us have gone so feral that we are beyond the reach of baseball metaphors? Come to think of it, my fellow jurors were just as fascinated by my own weirdness as I was by theirs. If I can at least say that I haven't reached the alien autopsy stage of rural desert living, it may be that I've already traveled farther down that path than I'd like to admit.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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Images of his jury summons and his imagined look in 20 years courtesy the author.

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