Another Episode of “Great Moments in Local Government”

Faithful readers of this blog may recall my three-part series (here, here, and here) about the hassle of re-registering a car in the wonderful Commonwealth of Virginia. As you can imagine, that was a libertarian-reaffirming experience. But just in case you were wondering whether the effect was wearing off and I was about to be co-opted by the forces of statism, you can put your mind at ease. I recently had the pleasure of being called for jury duty by Fairfax County.

I have to confess that the jury summons did not cause immediate anguish. I had never served on a jury, or even been part of a jury-selection process, so I was a tad bit curious (I did receive a summons at my work address many years ago from the D.C. government, but since I lived in Virginia - and had never lived in DC - I tossed it in the trash). Maybe I would be selected for a case involving a gun owner, a drug user, or a tax evader, and I could stop a harmless person from being convicted. So I showed up at the Fairfax County Courthouse last week at the announced time of 8:15.

The first thing I noticed - much to my dismay - was that the rent-a-cops at the entrance were confiscating cell phones and blackberries. This would have been a tragedy since I’m addicted to the blackberry and I was planning on filling any dead time with emails, text messages, and Internet browsing. Fortunately, it turned out that they were only seizing devices with cameras, leaving me grateful (for once) that the tight-fisted Cato managers provided me with the oldest and cheapest version on the market.

Having avoided the near-death experience of being without a blackberry, I wander to the jury-assembly room. This is where the day begins to head downhill. The bureaucrats cheerfully thank us for being there and announce that we will be shown a video at 8:45. I’m tempted to ask why we had to show up at 8:15 if things didn’t begin ‘til 8:45, but I bite my tongue. After all, a court system is one of the few legitimate functions of government, so I didn’t want to rock the boat.

Thirty minutes later, it’s finally time for the video. Some of my colleagues give me grief about my mini-documentaries, but they would be tempted to award me an Oscar if they had to watch the syrupy being-a-juror-is-a-wonderful-civic-experience video that I had to endure. But at least it didn’t last too long and there was no offensive pro-government propoganda. Afterwards, the court bureaucrats ask if we have any questions and then tell us that we will get paid $30 per day for our trouble. We’re also told that we could request a form if we wanted to reject the money and instead have it funneled into some sort of Justice Trust Fund. My faith in my fellow citizens was bolstered when only about five percent of the crowd raised their hands and asked for the form.

At this point, we’re then told that someone may call our names at 10:00 to go to a courtroom for potential jury selection. Since it’s not much past 9:00, I’m once again tempted to ask why we had to show up at 8:15, only this time the voice in my head in phrasing the question in a slightly less polite fashion. Only the soothing presence of my blackberry prevents me from making a scene.

Shortly after 10:00, a group of jurors gets called, but I’m not one of them, but hopes of any early dismissal evaporate when my name is part of the second group. So about 30 of us dutifully march to a courtroom, only to then wait for another 20-plus minutes. We eventually get seated, at which point 12 of us (but not me) are called to the jury box and asked questions about impartiality and whether there are any conflicts that would prevent being on the jury.

This is where it got interesting, at least from a libertarian perspective. The court was hearing a civil case involving a contract dispute, and the judge explained (if I understood correctly, which may not have been the case at that uncivilized hour of the day) that the law did not necessarily seek to enforce and uphold contracts. Instead, the goal was to find a utilitarian, cost-minimizing way of settling the dispute. In other words, if the cost of forcing the fulfillment of the original contract was greater than the damage to the wronged party, then somehow jurors were supposed to let that guide their decisions. The potential jurors were asked to raise their hands if they had a problem with the notion that they were supposed to apply the law as determined by the state legislature, not to decide based on their own view of right and wrong.

At this stage, I knew I would not be a juror. Even if all 12 jurors had excuses and could not serve, I would be rejected the moment that the judge asked me to raise my hand if I would be guided by something beyond the capricious choices of the Virginia state legislature. While twiddling my thumbs in the back of the courtroom, I began envisioning the Patrick Henry-style speech I woud give when the judge asked why I would have a problem. In a very anti-climactic development, though, a jury was seated without additional names being called. Then, this morning, my group was not called, so my Walter Mitty fantasy of starting a judicial revolution with a stunning oration will have to wait at least three more years.