Vending Machines, Boredom and Coffee: An Exercise in Civil Service
by Thomas Giblin (he/him) @thegreengiblin
culture & lifestyle writer
illustration by Haydn Nixon (he/him)
In a sweltering room sits twelve jurors agonising over whether or not a teenager murdered his father. Soon, they begin to question their values and morals. Sidney Lumet's classic film 12 Angry Men was one of my few reference points for jury duty, an alien concept I didn't expect to partake in until I received an official-looking letter. Friends and family will tell you how they tried to get out of serving to no avail. An old boss of mine used to brag about writing phoney letters so his employees didn't have to miss out on 'essential' work. The discourse surrounding jury duty has become toxic, an all-consuming chlorine gas cloud. This disillusionment means a letter of summons has become an instrument of bureaucratic terror.
Consequently, I dreaded turning up at the Auckland District Court at 8:45am a few weeks ago. I joined the other sodden jurors, as we queued like lambs to the slaughter, waiting to go through security. Those not absorbed by the glow of a smartphone mumbled their grievances to each other. One man in a neat blue suit took a call and began subjugating everyone to the details of his 'important' meeting – the octave he spoke at meant we all learnt his team's agenda for the week ahead.
We all sat down and waited in a large grey room, a judicial keep. There was a television regurgitating old gameshows and a humming coffee machine, which did little to drown out the monotony of failing contestants. Which country has the most high-speed rail? China, obviously. Each potential juror found a nook and tried to make themselves comfortable. You had to choose between sickly orange sofas or awkwardly-sized classroom chairs. I went with the former, hoping the legroom would give me solace.
There was an awkward tension in the air, as if we were waiting to start an exam, or getting the results of a medical test. Some chose to befriend those sitting beside them, but most kept to themselves. Occasionally, you'd roll your eyes and shake your head as the wait for someone to announce something dragged on. I'd make regular pilgrimages for a mochaccino whilst my headphones blasted music, a momentary respite from the sofa I now called home. The liquid that coughed out of the tottering coffee machine was a cure for boredom and I gorged myself like Augustus Gloop.
As I waited, hoping to be put out of my misery, it dawned on me: this wasn't something to be spiteful about. Yes, I was getting paid cents for my time – but what’s new? The coming together of this group of total strangers was a celebration of democracy. People from all walks of life: rich and poor, young and old, are brought together for this important function of government. It's an opportunity to learn about our legal system and to ensure that it's fair for all New Zealanders. The right to a fair trial is something to be celebrated. Without this civic service, we risk tyranny.
The self-sacrifice required in being away from work, study or family is a minor inconvenience compared to those who are never given a fair trial. I look to Russia as an example of what happens when people are no longer given this internationally recognised human right. These violations see people imprisoned for decades on false charges in trials that are politically motivated. Thousands have been unjustly imprisoned in the looming shadow of Putin's bloody invasion of Ukraine for voicing their anti-war sentiments.
My name is called along with thirty or so others, and I join a parade of people making their way to a courtroom. In rows of tightly-packed chairs, we sit shoulder to shoulder like tinned sardines as the defendant's charges are read out. They stand in a glass box, and we gawk at them as if they were an animal at a zoo. A judge sits up on his perch, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings as the court registrar begins to call out people's names. It's a nerve-wracking experience as one by one, names echo out over a hushed crowd. Soon, twelve jurors are selected, and none are challenged.
I feel relieved as I walk back to the jury assembly area with those not picked. To be fair and open-minded, with someone's future in your hands, is an enormous weight to bear. The experience of sitting metres across from someone who’s innocent until proven guilty, should not be looked at with disdain. Taking part in a fair trial by an independent and impartial court is an honour. We all prefer the comforts of our daily routines, but when called upon, we must recognise the immense responsibility and privilege of this civic service. If we’re not mindful, ordinary people like you and me flirt with tyranny. Disengagement, misinformation and polarisation mustn't win, especially when we contend with one of the most important elections of our generation.