By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff
I began my summer by reporting to jury duty.
I’d been summoned twice before, and both calls fell shortly after the birth of one of my girls. I got excused for medical reasons; I was more than my babies’ mom, I was their milk machine, and only source of food considering they wouldn’t take a bottle.
Now that the kids were older, I had no medical excuse. But the responsibilities of motherhood don’t lessen just because the kids can tie their own shoes. So, with a husband whose work schedule was inflexible, and my regular baby sitters out of town, I waged a desperate search. I finally found two sitters who between them could watch my kids. (Camp might have been an option, but I had to keep in mind I would earn $5 a day as a juror.)
And so, with a tag-team of sitters covering the day, I drove to a parking lot in Trenton, boarded a bus, arrived at the courthouse and walked up several flights of steps to join hundreds of other anxious citizens in a courtroom. A charismatic man, whose official title I can’t recall, greeted the group by saying, “Welcome to jury duty. The only lottery you ever won.”
We listened while he explained our civic duty and then sat quietly while they played a short video explaining voir dire. Our duty as jurors was presented as a remarkable right of citizenship and one on which our justice system depends. The video, the judge in his robe, the flag in the corner, the wood paneling and stained glass windows of the courtroom took hold and I was moved. Until I found out we were in for a three-week criminal trial that would require four days a week for about eight hours a day, I’d have said “Sign me up!”
Instead, I joined the long line of apologetic souls who pleaded their case to the master of ceremonies, requesting that we be “excused” and sent home from the courtroom.
“My kids are out of school. I’m happy to serve in the Fall,” I said. And after a moment of uncertain resolution and a few questions to test my veracity, a note was made and I was sent home.
Just last week I got my check for $5.
And yet, it should be said, that with the exception of the breastfeeding, my quandary was about childcare, not motherhood, or shall I say, being a woman. The right to be on a jury is something I do not want my girls to take for granted or to shrug off as an annoyance. I take them with me to vote every opportunity I have. I tell them, as we all squeeze into the voting booth and they fight over who gets to push the buttons, that this is a right women must use. We had to fight for it.
And being on a jury? A quick look at the legal record shows that it wasn’t until 1975, in Taylor v. Louisiana, that laws were struck down stating women’s service on a jury was not mandatory.
As with all things, our choices as parents influence our children’s perceptions. It was important to me that my children understood that I respected the responsibility of being called for jury duty. It comes with the territory of registering to vote. It’s something to take pride in, both as a citizen and as a woman.
But, it felt like an act of herculean strength to get out of the house with a responsible sitter at the helm, get to the courthouse and then get back home in time to regroup for the rest of the week without school.
Being on the jury? Examining the evidence? Listening to the lawyers, the judge and the witnesses and deliberating with eleven others?
Frankly, that would have been the easy part. I’m a mom. I work in the name of justice every day.
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