Grand Jury (Day 5) – Celebrating diversity & sameness

Maybe lawyers don’t like to work on Mondays. We had very light work scheduled today, barely an hour in the afternoon. We still got paid for the full day, along with our travel allowance. And when the 65-minute day stretched to 75 minutes? We groused. We’re just learning to be government employees, so those who have done it can tell me if we are quick studies.

This weekend I reflected more about the diversity we’re privileged to see parading before us. Literally all walks of life. And some who can’t walk. I’ve seen a very successful attorney and a migrant farmer who barely speaks English, both victimized under similar circumstances. We had a farmer testify last week who is a Mennonite. After he was given the oath, he replied “I affirm” and took his seat. I knew his story and shared it later with my fellow-jurors, but he didn’t seem concerned to have his specialness highlighted. (Mennonites refuse to “swear,” even in an oath. They choose instead to affirm, but have no wish to be unduly difficult.) Except for that one word, there was nothing remarkable about him. He was the same as all the rest.

Later that day a man who spoke no English at all came to testify. The state provided a translator, whose skill astounded me. He could listen to us ask a question, repeat the question in Spanish, watch his client and repeat his answer back to us in English. Somehow he did all of this simultaneously: listening in English, repeating in Spanish, listening in Spanish, and repeating in English. The parts often overlapped, but still he kept up. What’s more, he was able to match inflection and cadence, mimicking the mood and intent of each speaker. He was a living babelfish, making people who are different see their underlying sameness. What a gift.

The law does require for all of us to be the same. This is why when police profile, it’s called scandalous. When stores profile, it’s called marketing. Capitalism assumes we’re all different; democracy proclaims we’re all the same. The tension between them has kept us a safely befuddled people for 230 years.