Everyone has been talking about threats to democracy lately. According to its sudden defenders, a lot of sensible things were actually a threat. Allowing free speech threatened democracy. Addressing vote fraud threatened democracy. Limiting aid to Ukraine now threatens democracy. I’m sure I’ve left a few things off the list.
But if you really want to know what threatens democracy, look no further than your nearest big-city courthouse. One need only spend a day in jury duty to know that the marriage of folly and vice has spawned a population of citizens who view America not as the land of opportunity, but as the land of opportunism.
I recently had jury duty, which is more akin to a community service sentence than a Jeffersonian rite of citizenship. My short experience there suggests that things are worse than democracy’s defenders think. Our threat may actually come from an enemy within—the litigious masses that drag our greatness down.
The downtown Atlanta courthouse puts some visuals to this theory. Outside, its drab surroundings are marked by the scenes of municipal blight. Inside, all sorts of lawsuits and trouble make their slow rounds on the wheels of modern justice.
The first thing one learns as a juror is that half of the day will be consumed with inefficiencies. When I arrived for duty, the courthouse was packed with potential jurists. After an 8:00 check-in, 10:30 arrived with jurors still planted in the plastic waiting-room chairs, but now armed with knowledge gained from Covid-related announcements.
Perhaps a few hoped for a spot on the notorious Young Slime Life (YSL) case— a showcase of the criminal lives of Atlanta’s celebrity rappers. As it turns out, that trial was temporarily adjourned when one of the defendants gave his associate, Young Thug, a Percocet in full view of the courtroom; so much for adjudicating thug life.
Up in the seventh floor courtroom, though, things wouldn’t be so wild. It would be the inglorious scene of a personal injury lawyer extracting cash from a crash on behalf of his able-bodied client.
First, a bit of a detour; driving around town, I often find myself behind public transit buses, which serve as mobile billboards for the personal injury industry. After crawling through rush hour, “One call, that’s all” is frequently stuck in my head—along with the white teeth of a perennially-midlife lawyer’s face.
You don’t have to be behind a bus to see this, though. At any point on the interstate, you can lock eyes with a personal injury attorney looming above on a billboard—arms crossed in a no-nonsense, confident stance. Long stretches of our interstate host billboard face-offs among the area’s best tort warriors.
There in the courtroom, I sat before one of these aspiring celebrities—a slick-looking guarantor of vehicular justice. He was flanked by his client and a three-person team, while the defendant sat beside her sole attorney. I was now held captive by the billboard people in a contest of a victim and his villain; against my honor, I would join the clowns of the low-brow world of injury litigation.
The case would presumably bring long-awaited justice to a traffic accident that occurred a head-scratching four years ago; so here sat our plaintiff—in his high-tops and chunky gold chain, still riding his bygone calamity in rock-star style.