California Outback Report: In Service of Our Republic – Answering the Call for Jury Duty

The new postmistress of Canby hauled up the stars and stripes on the flagpole as I walked by—flipping through my mail—and I called out, “Oh, no! Jury duty.”

She merely laughed. A recent transplant from Michigan, she alluded to being happy because on this particular day—it wasn’t snowing. I tucked the summons into my car consul and headed to the valley to work. I had a week or so reprieve.

When the day came, I shaved and dressed up by donning fresh underwear, fancy socks, a collared shirt and a clean pair of blue jeans: Going into town up here in the high desert, one needs to make a respectable effort at being respectable. I also spritzed on some Nautica cologne. I would be respectable—and smell nice.

It’s about 13 miles to the county seat from my place, heading east on Centerville Road through a terrain that is best described as severely beautiful: pastureland with a flush of green, boarded by boils of lava outcroppings and faraway mountains still crested white. In spring, the vista of the California Outback can be both restorative and when overcast, lonesome.

On this gray morning pending rain, it was chilly and people had their collars turned up against the wind as they headed into the courthouse in Alturas. The summons directed us to the new “justice center”—an optimistic label, given the building’s public space consists of a lobby at the clerk’s office, one courtroom, bathrooms—and a smaller foyer that barely holds two dozen people.

Signs ominously warned: No knifes (yes, knifes—maybe we should fix it, says one lady), no bags, no gum, no sunglasses. But oddly, no word about guns: Only in Modoc County—where there’s always one in the chamber—would that notice be absent.

I am part of a pool of jurors called up for 1 p.m.—and through scuttlebutt hear that there’s an earlier group, that we are part of a very large crowd summoned this day. The trial is criminal, the docket shows the defendant’s name; the charge we find out later sets one’s teeth on edge. As the itty-bitty lobby fills up, we are directed by a bailiff to go wait in the courtroom of the old courthouse.

That old courthouse is century-old square, compact stucco structure with a copper-top dome. Its exterior was restored in its centennial in 2015, leaving a pleasing brown and black color scheme, surrounded by tidy landscaping that sports metal sculptures of egrets amid stone, lavender and bunch grass—an ample lawn and all of that bounded by a black iron rail fence with decorative spikes. All in all, a very attractive seat of government.

Splendor in the grass: The Modoc County Courthouse on a sunny day—could be a nice picnic in a park. Photos by H.A. Silliman.

We trudge up massive white and gray-veined marble steps lined brass railings to the second floor where are the supervisors’ chambers, the district attorney, the county administrative offices, the court clerk and—in the northeast corner—the courtroom.

A clerk calls out, “Don’t go in yet till I check you in” and a bailiff pops his head out of the double doors, “Y’all can come in. I’m the metal detector.” And indeed, today, he just watches as we file in, his detecting wand sitting idle in a chair. “Its batteries are dead,” he explains to some.

Classic décor: The second floor marble balcony is decorated with inlays of griffins and urns.

This courtroom—designed by architect Frederick J. DeLongchamps, who shaped up many public buildings in Northern California and Nevada—is an architectural time capsule, when design and décor combined to speak impressively, to make an editorial comment, to be as grand and majestic as the system of justice and the law that would happen within the space.

When one walks in, the visitor’s attention immediately soar upwards, lifted by the stateliness, maybe as needs to be the mind when doing business in a Superior Court. The most dramatic elements are gold medallions on fields of blue that line the upper walls; deep crown-molded ceiling panels, mock- colonnaded walls and extensive oak wood work, including the oak rail that separates the audience from the attorneys and judge. DeLongchamps’ architectural fee for the building was $5,400—considered a king’s ransom at the time. But amortized over a century, that’s $54 a year: money well spent and a value still delivering.

Beautiful and functionary: The cupola of the Modoc County Courthouse is a stained-glass window, designed to open for air circulation.

This is our waiting room until we are called back to the trial venue about two hours later. We learn from the clerk that the morning call-up didn’t fill in the jury. “Let me explain what’s going on,” she begins, saying that the judge is still questioning the 8:30 a.m. pool. “There’s 20 left, so hang tight.”

We are 78 people waiting in the room that smells of old wood, wax and something else mildly sweet, sitting in rows of folding wooden seats with no pads—like church pews. A half-dozen jurors with foresight have brought books, many others are playing games or on the internet via smart phone. Others chat in the room that’s made toasty from four-foot by four-foot silver-painted radiators along the walls.

Later, the bailiff comes back in and surveys the scene, “A real happy group,” he comments, and then passing by later, asks, “Everybody having fun?” and this draws one man in a sweatshirt to joke, “There’s a limit to how long you can keep this many people in a room quiet.”

“Yes,” agrees the officer. “And there’s no one left in town that you can charge 25 cents to watch!”

The clock on the back wall has yet to make the leap to daylight savings time, but two hours later we are directed back to the new justice center, and slowly walk through the real-live, plug-in, whoop-tee-do metal detector station, where you have to empty pockets of all cell phones, keys and other shrapnel. Thankfully, we can keep our shoes on—leaving me unable to show off my dressy Timeberland socks.

If the old courtroom inspires, the new courtroom bores. A product of the 1990s, it is as dull as portable high school classroom, lacking nobility and character. The walls are creamy white and, along the back wall, panels of a light rose felt. The window blinds are vertical slats of purple. Everything else is utilitarian. Absent ornament and splendor, it’s the cookie-cutter meeting hall of a non-denominational church, a college lecture room—or that most dreaded of large city spaces—the DMV waiting lounge.

Yet, what the décor lacks in thoughtfulness, is more than compensated by all what follows: the judge’s remarks to the incoming jury pool, the dignity that shapes the day.

We are told to remain seated when the judge enters. We can see that he has a kindly face, that in a pinch he could fill in for a shopping mall Santa Claus—and the initials of his name offer a silent chuckle: They comprise a delicious voiced epitaph—D.A.M.

The judge immediately begins by apologizing for the inconvenience of us having to be there. It’s just part of the process that has to happen for jury trials in our system of justice. He regrets the inconvenience again and acknowledges jurors will be frustrated along the way. He considerately listens to a few people who raise their hands to voice immediate concerns about their attendance due to conflicts and reacts immediately, letting them go.

As he continues talking about the process, around the room, people are nodding their heads in agreement. He is doing what all good speakers need to do to grab the attention of an audience, to get their sympathy, he is conceding points to them. Now, people are hitching up to his words. And what suddenly coalesces in my mind is the significance of the occasion—despite the surroundings.

In being summoned for jury service, this is what happens: There’s a slow dawning that our presence is valued, that our opinion will even be valued; that we get to provide a brief biography of our life during questioning by the judges and attorneys—one of the few times that authorities are listening about who we are as individuals. For most of us, the only other time the story of our life becomes public is in that newspaper obituary.

This is one of two activities for most citizen’s—the other being at the ballot box—when we are called upon to do our civic duty—not even the just-passed day for paying income taxes requires citizen participation if you have a clever enough attorney or accountant.

So the wait does some good—even for those of us who aren’t chosen for the ultimate duty of sitting on the jury since it is a manifestation that citizenship has required duties. For those few who actually may be empanelled, the voir dire becomes a useful prep for what’s to follow: to be alert, be thoughtful—to listen well. Throughout the day, I also noticed people also seemed more thoughtful outwardly: They held open the doors for each other, they were polite—let folks pass first out of the seat into the aisles—little acts of kindness that make one feel good about the human race.

Jury duty doesn’t make citizens of us all—it reminds us that we are citizens and we have a responsibilities. And that a certain amount of grousing is OK, in fact, helps leaven the moment, add humor to what can be a grim task for the folks finally chosen to weigh evidence and weigh in on the fate of the defendant.

When the day ends, we of the second pool are called back the next day—and about 40 minutes into the morning, a jury is seated and the rest of us are released. Later, at the grocery store while waiting to have my items checked, I browse the local newspaper. There on the front page is the story about two big crimes—a detailing of when they are expected to be tried—back-to-back in the summertime, it appears. Two murder trials for Modoc County—and I wonder how many folks will need to be called up then—and if I will be back, still feeling civic-minded.


H.A. Silliman

H.A. Silliman is a freelance writer and communications consultant. He served as the VP of Communications for the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and holds a B.A. from the University of the Pacific and an M.A. from Sacramento State University.

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