Friday, April 11, 2008

Voire Dire


My ability to judge others varies greatly; on good days I am righteous and sure, able to balance heaven and earth, like Moses himself. On bad days I can hardly pay attention.

My number came up this week when I was called to hear testimony, weigh evidence and take part in judging the veracity of two of my neighbors. Jury duty this week was for a civil trial. Next week I could be judging the fate of an accused murderer. You don't know until you get to the courthouse.

If Democracy is in fact "the worst form of government, except for all the rest," jury duty could be called the best form of flattery, except for all the rest. What surprised me this week when I showed up for voire dire, is that I was first put on trial myself.

"Voire Dire" is an Anglo-French term meaning "To speak the truth." During this first phase of jury selection, a group of 60 of us—lawyers, truck drivers, realtors, bartenders, business executives, and at least one part-time journalist—were asked questions by the judge aimed at cleansing the room of all presumption and bias regarding the argument at hand.

Right. I'd been building cases of my own against many of these small town faces for years. Some were dear and honorable, others spoiled, others I wanted to get to know better. Who would I want called if I were on trial?

Each attorney seeking a sense of our remaining biases and how they might affect the final verdict asked us questions. The attorneys knew our occupations and perhaps other, personal things. They wanted to know if we'd ever been justifiably fired from a job, if we believed that people often blame others for their own bad choices, and, interestingly enough, what magazines we subscribed to.

On this level field, under the gaze of Washington and Lincoln, I began to feel part of something larger than myself. The ceiling of the court chamber is made of a wide circle of soft light, as though the magistrate represents an even loftier authority than he does. Would I be just or merciful? Do lives become ruined by bad choices or by circumstance? Should I subscribe to Harper's or to the New Yorker? Then one of the attorneys informed us that, "sympathy is not to be involved in making our decision on a verdict."

'Laws are funny things,' I thought. It was lawful to shoot Bushmen for sport in southern Africa well into the 20th Century. It is still quite lawful for certain corporations to despoil the biosphere of the earth. Even as I was being examined for flaws in my integrity and my ability to be objective, it occurred to me that the law itself is never beyond reproach. It is public opinion, rather than impartiality, that makes for a better world.

One of the attorneys might have been listening to my thoughts. I didn't make the cut, but, instead, had to get back to work.

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