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Illustration by Wenting Li

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

So there I was, outside the courthouse on a blustery winter morning reporting for duty … jury duty. One of the last civic responsibilities; a remnant of a bygone era; a despised cornerstone of our democracy. It’s the only thing that unites people across every dividing line – because everyone has a story about how they hate jury duty.

I heard many from my fellow citizens that morning. More than 200 people, mostly grumbling, lined up to go into the courthouse. The line moved like a 1991 Ford Taurus: barely. Why, you wonder? There was only one working metal detector. Apparently, the courthouse couldn’t operate the second metal detector without three security guards. And alas, there were only two. Who was responsible? Budget cuts? Poor planning? Bad luck? Didn’t matter to us because we were freezing!

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In my frosty stupor, I asked myself, are the metal detectors necessary? Do people really hate jury duty so much that courthouse employees fear for their lives? Then it clicked in my uncaffeinated brain: Actual court cases were happening inside. Ahh.

As my brain began to function (still debatable), I realized I had never seen so many disgruntled people in my life. Do they send out a poison pill with your jury notice? I thought Warheads candy was sour, but they might as well be Fun-Dip compared to this lot.

We filed into a large waiting room. Silence. We watched a propaganda video. Silence. We listened to an announcement repeating previously mentioned propaganda from the propaganda video. Silence. Then came an announcement to please approach the counter if anyone wished to “contest their attendance.” A flurry of movement ensued.

Some people got to leave. Some had to wait to see a judge, such as the vocal VP of finance – complete with snakeskin dress shoes – who was tweaking out so hard he must’ve been going through importance withdrawal.

After the crowd thinned, the room reached a level of silence so thick it is only attainable in a monastery or a government waiting room filled with free Wi-Fi and unspoken fury.

But there’s only so much work you can do on a smartphone before the neck cricks and the soul withers, so before long, the unthinkable happened: people started talking.

And for a bunch of people who hated jury duty and were begging to go back to work, apparently most people hated their jobs more.

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But after a morning of blind outrage, some potential jurors gave in and accepted their fate. We started having more interesting conversations – ones that reached beyond “what do you do?” I had incredible discussions with people I wouldn’t normally get to speak with: a postman worried about his route going out on time; a hip, young, publisher mom who, that morning, had to explain the difference between “want” and “need” to her youngest child; a telecom analyst dad of twin boys who loved basketball, to name a few.

We talked about everything and nothing. The general – music, sports, public-transit woes – to the specific – raising a son while island-hopping in the Caribbean in the sixties, the potential benefits of universal basic income, how social work has or hasn’t adapted for today’s youth.

Soon, the VP of finance was selected for a trial. He seemed humbled after realizing that a person’s fate was in his hands. Or maybe it was just that he was important again.

And after a day of scintillating chats and dry Tim Horton’s bagels, I ended up getting picked, too, on a trial for multiple bank robberies. It was the most fascinating and gripping experience. My fellow jurors and I saw the alleged bank robberies play out, saw footage from the alleged police chase, heard expert witnesses explain forensic evidence, fingerprinting techniques and bank security. The courtroom players were impressive – way more nuanced than the characters in a legal drama – the aggressive defence lawyer who hated injustice so much they were likely doing the case pro bono; the fumbling, yet earnest, prosecutor; the silent, stoic accused; the revelatory witnesses, some saying more than they were asked, which resulted in temporary legal chaos where the jury had to leave the courtroom.

The trial was stimulating and surprisingly moving. Despite not being paid and taking time off work, which is a lot to ask of jurors and explains some of the previously mentioned fury, I was genuinely invested. At night, I felt excited to go back the next day and learn more about the case. My fellow jurors and I bonded – mostly over the weather and the free snacks the courthouse gives you – but then COVID-19 hit and the world ground to a halt. I looked forward to resuming the trial, but instead I received a curt letter relieving me of my duty – the whole affair has been classified a mistrial.

It feels like such a waste of time, energy and resources to start the trial over again, but maybe I’m just disappointed that I’ll miss out on seeing it through to the end. As the massive backlog of pandemic-delayed cases go back to court, at least 12 new jurors will get the chance – dare I say the privilege? – to experience the new trial.

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When jury duty called, I was indifferent. Seeing the scales of justice up close felt like a decent way to spend a few wintry days. But after sitting on a trial, I was incredibly thankful for the chance to see inside the workings of the justice system. The weight of responsibility was unlike anything I expected. A person’s fate was (partly) in my hands. When this finally clicked in my brain, it was a powerful revelation. I also realized that jury duty is the only civic duty I have – voting is voluntary, and some people don’t even pay taxes. If I ever get called for jury duty again, I think I might actually look forward to it.

Colin Mercer lives in Toronto.

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