10/02/2013 10:50 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Call Me Juror No. 3

The bold lettering on the envelope was unmistakeable. I had been summoned. For jury duty. The call has come a number of times over the years, but this was, for a variety of reasons, the first time I ever had to actually report. I was alternately worried and intrigued. It's sort of a reverse lottery -- the "jackpot" being a case that runs for months, but mostly likely no case or a few days.

The general opinion about jury duty seems to be that, for a desirable pastime, it's right up there with recreational dentistry. Sites abound with ideas for getting out of it. Being 17 months preggers worked for me once. I think I'll pass on showing up in a bee suit. Honestly, I was curious to see what it's like (jury duty, that is, not dentistry or the bee suit) and there's also this crazy, old-fashioned idea that maybe it's, oh you know, a civic duty. Which it is.

Friends warned me that it would be hours of sitting around. Which it was. And most likely for nothing. Which it wasn't. The first day, I made friends with the people around me and otherwise amused myself well enough until they took pity and sprung us. On the second day, my number came up midmorning and all my new jury pool buddies threw me a little going-away party and wished me luck as I trooped off to Voir Dire (Latin for "how much can you lie without actually lying").

They seat you in order and I was Juror No. 3, which means unless I could come up with some pretty dire voir, I was doing the time. The hardship stories offered up by others were varied and mostly plausible. I would have let them all off but one. The judge let even the obvious cheater go, though she grilled him pretty hard and made it amply clear she wasn't fooled. But there was still plenty of jury meat left to be skewered. The lawyers asked questions and took turns releasing a few more. In short order I was seated on the jury and plunged right into the fondu of opening arguments.

It was a civil case, nothing lurid or newsworthy -- two lives entangled at the intersection of a Metro bus and a Ford Mustang. It's the kind of thing that happens all the time. Our job was to decide how much a young woman's suffering was worth. People like to say life is priceless, but it turns out it isn't. Lives get priced out every day, though I have fresh respect now for the people who are called on to do it.

I've heard the complaints about jury duty -- about the boredom, being treated like idiots, ordered around and unappreciated. Try the military draft sometime. Maybe I was lucky, but I found the process fascinating. The wheels of justice turn at their own pace, which is not always zippy, but it was clear they were trying not to waste anyone's time. Every person connected with the court -- clerks, bailiff, judge, security, attorneys -- acted with courtesy, conscientiousness, humor and humanity. They clearly respected the process, the law and our contribution. I had a sense that I was part of something important and historic.

The trappings of respect are the least they can (and should) do. The $10 a day doesn't exactly have "valued service" written all over it, and yet lives and livelihoods are routinely laid in our unpaid hands. (Side note: We had the opportunity to donate our per diem to an emergency child care program for family court -- a much-needed service. So my compensation consisted of bus fare.)

Most of all, I was impressed by my fellow jurors. Even though this was not a big criminal case, coming to an agreement wasn't quick -- deliberations took almost as long as trying the entire case, including fiddling with a projector that was clearly in contempt of court. In deliberations, the 12 us disagreed, waffled, argued, laid out our thinking and tried to bring the others around to our own point of view. But even when I disagreed with other jurors, at no time did I feel any of them were cavalier or biased. Nor did anyone trivialize another's opinion. It was so clear that, even though we came to different conclusions, every person had thought long and hard, even lying awake at night trying to decide what was right and fair.

It was not clear-cut. One thing that surprised and frustrated me was how much information we didn't get about the case. It was obvious that vast swathes of evidence and testimony had been disallowed before we even showed up. We submitted questions, and some were answered, but for the most part we had to decide based on obviously incomplete information. They trusted us to do our best to render a decision with the information we had and and that's what we did. I felt kind of wrung out when it was done, but also that I'd been part of something that was as fair as it could be.

Next time your summons arrives, resist the urge to look for a way out. Suck it up and go. You never know when the Metro bus of fate will smash into your Mustang of your life. When it does, do you want to have your fate decided by 12 losers who were too stupid to get out of jury duty?

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