Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Rituals of Justice

Monday and Tuesday, I was called up for jury duty. I was called to a criminal trial, a rather minor one that did not involve violence, as far as I can tell. I didn't get seated, but it was an interesting experience, as it took two days to select the jury. There seems to be some dress code in the legal profession that dictates all female court officials wear a minimum 2" high heel. Every piece of furniture in the courtroom is barcoded, even the ancient wooden stenographer's desk, and there are more computers than I remember from my last stint.

The formality and rituals of the courtroom are fascinating. Jurors can only enter a courtroom when directed to do so. The prosecutor's table is always to the left of the judge, the defendent's always to the right. The attorneys rise and face the jury when we enter or depart, standing just so. There is a great deal of standing just so - rise as the judge enters, stand and face the flag, use only your right hand for an oath, move from one seat to another upon direction, face a certain direction when answering. The questions asked bear no resemblance to TV shows. They are stated calmly, slowly, and (at least for the selection) in the same way. Everyone is Mr. and Ms. , Your Honor and Juror, the People and the Defense. It is reassuring, this structure.

Where else in public life can one find this level of order as a normal matter of daily action? Legislatures, I suspect, places of worship and militaries. Ritual gives form and meaning - it is done this way for the sake of something. In this case, it is for the sake of justice. It is easy to be cynical and deride what you see as nothing more than a sham, window dressing on a fundamentally economically and racially biased system. Cynicism, however, is too easy. It takes nothing to refuse to imbue ritual with meaning, to "go through the motions." It takes little more to imagine the ritual to be the meaning.

What is missing from either stance is the possibility that ritual can draw us outside of ourselves and create the space in which something abstract (justice, equality, liberty) is made concrete and is able to withstand the rush of impermanence. It not only provides form, it provides persistence. Even in conditions where the ritual is hollowed out, as in show trials, the existence of the rituals stands as a rebuke to their misuse.

I suppose there is a point at which the rituals are so fragile that they can no longer serve even that small function, but I think that you are then dealing with a wholly corrupt situation and refoundation is the only cure. Even so, I am glad for the just-so acts of the court. Where else in the passage of human affairs can things like justice find a stable home?


1 comment:

Nath said...

Ah, yes, I was going to ask how the jury stuff went. An interesting inside glimpse into something that is pretty much alien to me, as we don't have a jury system here.

I'll now no doubt be pondering ritual and its uses for some time *g*