view from the 16th floor of a Harris County courthouse
The first round of questions is posed by the lawyer representing the father: Please raise your number if you believe that a mother always has first rights to the child.
I, along with five other potential jurors, raise my number. Our responses are recorded.
I’m in a courtroom in downtown Houston, along with 47 others; thirteen of us will be picked to serve on a jury for a family law case that involves marriage annulment and custody of a two-year old girl. We, the potential jury members, sit in rows of eight, our eyes in direct contact with those of the mother and father seated on the other side of the wooden partition. The mother wears a dark blue shirt and jacket and the father is in a suit.
Before the mother’s lawyer asks questions, he shares information about her: She was born and was raised in Dubai and came to the US to work. She achieved citizenship through Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), an international law that allows spouses to seek citizenship because of domestic abuse. Though she was raised Muslim, she doesn’t currently practice the faith.
Then he asks: How many of you can say you’d have trouble serving on the jury panel now that you know this information?
A woman at the very back row wearing a pink button-down shirt raises her number and speaks: I would have a bias. I wouldn’t feel comfortable endorsing a child going to a Muslim family. It would be like me endorsing a child to go to a family of dogs.
I hold back my gasp.
Another woman raises her card and speaks: I would feel the same. As a minister, I believe that Jesus Christ is our lord and Christianity is the only way to raise children.
The lawyer scribbles notes, and then asks: Is there anyone else who wants to share your response now that you know the mother was raised in a Muslim family?
A younger man with a beard and moustache adds: When I hear of Muslims, I always think of terrorism. But I would put that aside if I were selected.
From behind me, a man speaks up: This is awful. Allah is the same as the Christian god. There’s no difference!
I hold up my number and speak: I’m shocked by what I’m hearing! I want to register the opposite feelings. I was raised in a Muslim family in Pakistan and…this must be so difficult for the mother…
The lawyer nods and glances at the young woman, whose eyes are filmed with tears. It is a very difficult situation, he says. But we have to ask these questions. Her religion will come up during the hearings. We need to know everything each of you said in order to pick a fair jury.
After two hours of questions, the lawyers huddle by the podium with the judge. One by one, they begin calling prospective jurors for further questions.
In the end, to my relief, I’m not selected to serve on the jury, even though the mother’s lawyer has called me back for second questions; my bias in support of the mother rules me out.
I’m relieved to see that the woman in the pink shirt is not selected either, and that the man who declared that gods of all religions are the same is picked, as is the woman who sat beside me; she had told me the mother needed me to be on the jury. The educator who treated me to lunch is also one of the thirteen who is selected.
When I walk away from the room, down the elevator, into the sunshine toward my car, my eyes are prickly with tears. Though I’ve forgotten the judge’s name and the lawyers’ names, I have contacts for some who will serve as jurors for this case. In ten days, I can phone them and ask them if the mother was granted custody for her two-year old daughter.
April 2 update: I called one of the jury members and she informed me that the mother did gain custody of the daughter and that the father got his wish to have marriage annulled.