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Imagine spending every single day in jury duty.
Like a civic-minded version of Bill Murray’s adventures in Punxsutawney, you’d report each morning at 8 a.m. to Philly’s Criminal Justice Center, then sit on hard benches and deal with what seems like endless waiting, before going home and starting all over again.
For many, that’s a dreaded scenario. But for Tanya Covington, that’s reality — and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Covington, 55, is an administrative officer for the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, but you might know her better by her common moniker: “jury duty lady.” For 17 years, she’s welcomed jurors into the waiting room each morning, and with microphone in hand guided them cheerily through their day of service.
It’s not easy. As the emcee of civic duty, Covington has to put a smile on her face in a room where almost everyone is miserable. She’s got to pronounce everyone’s name correctly, and ensure no one freaks out over the sheer mundanity of the legal system.
Covington is a staple in Philly — so much so that total strangers recognize her and call her out on the street.
“I try to just throw my good vibes to them,” Covington said. “If they receive them, fine. If they don’t, it’s like, I’ve gotta work a little harder.”
It all starts with a venting session
The character of Philadelphia jury duty room is not unlike that of the rest of the city. To put it plainly, a lot of ridiculousness goes down.
Sometimes you’ve got a 7-foot fuzzy green mascot sitting shoulder to shoulder with you in the waiting room. Sometimes, the legal system creates budding friendships and brings impromptu rounds of the Eagles fight song. Sometimes it turns into a giant karaoke party.
It’s not all Covington’s doing, but she’s often the woman running the show.
When she first signed onto the gig, it wasn’t such a humorous operation, she said. The collective attitude surrounding civic duty was a major downer.
“The first thing they want to know, even though they just got there, is they want to know when they can be leaving,” said Covington, a Maryland native who’s now a loving grandmother and devoted Birds fan.
After dealing with the day-to-day ennui of so many Philadelphians for years, she felt the urge to get creative.
She slowly started incorporating some jokes into her morning routine at the courthouse. And they actually seemed to land. It felt to Covington like the moods of the public servants she shepherded were improving, and the days were getting better.
By now, she’s got it down to a science.
Each day starts with a group venting sesh. She’ll prime all the jurors with a depressing yet unavoidable truth: They’re not going anywhere. Jury duty lasts all day, and they have no reason to expect an early dismissal.
“They’re like, ‘Ugh,’” Covington said. “And I’m like, ‘Let it out, let it out. We’re going to get this out of our system and we’re going to have a good day.’”
She regularly refers folks to the free coffee and cakes available in the waiting room. She streams game shows on the TVs constantly.
“Price is Right comes on at 11,” Covington said, three hours into duty and the exact time that folks in the waiting room need a pick me up.
She loves the program so much that last Thursday she delayed sending a group of jurors to a courtroom for a few minutes so they could find out whether a teenage girl managed to win a brand new Toyota Camry. “If you’re staying,” she said, “we’re going to stay together and holler at the TV together.”
Then there’s the part of the job that calls for rattling off unfamiliar names. From her podium at the front of the waiting room, Covington is tasked with calling roll, pronouncing the names of every single juror before sending them on their way.
The key, she said: Don’t be afraid to mess up.
“Don’t ask me where I got ‘Mary Louise’ from. That says ‘Mark Louis,’” Covington joked last week to a round of jurors. The crowd laughed with her.
She’s not always met with a warm response. Covington has to steel herself when people are in irreparably terrible moods generated from missing time at work or waiting around extra long.
“I’m just the messenger,” she said. “I can’t please everybody. But if I can please someone and get them OK with me, that makes me happy.”
Performing with a ‘captive audience’
Here’s the real tea about Covington: the Queen of the Courts is actually quite shy. During a one-on-one interview, her entertaining wit was almost overcome by her nerves.
“To be honest with you, she’s quiet,” said Patrick Martin, director of jury commission and Covington’s direct report. “She’s reserved. But when she goes out into the room, she’s a totally different person.”
The “jury duty lady” persona is all an act — Covington will say so herself. And unlike most performers, she’s got the benefit of a guaranteed group of spectators.
“This is like, I am performing,” she said. “I just have a captive audience. You’re not leaving!”
Covington’s unique brand of pageantry is a clear success. Sure, she said, most people will never love jury duty, but she knows she makes a mark. It’s evident in the sheer number of times she’s recognized by strangers on the street.
It happens all the time — at a food truck on her lunch break, out shopping, in the grocery store in her West Philly neighborhood. Even at her niece’s college graduation in Bloomsburg, Pa.
“Just the other day, I’m walking, trying to get to transportation, and a car goes, ‘Hey jury duty lady, I know you from jury duty!’” Covington recalled. “It’s not even 7 o’ clock in the morning, and I’m getting called out from a car.”
The waiting room suggestion boxes are also proof of her impact.
“It’s not uncommon to have positive comments about Tanya,” said Martin, her boss. “They say things like, ‘We need more people like her around here,’ and ‘She’s a breath of fresh air.’”
“People don’t have favorable experiences [with city government],” he added, “but when they come in here and deal with Tanya they do.”
Covington’s favorite part? Meeting Philadelphians from all walks of life. No one is immune from judicial service, and she gets to greet them all.
“You’re all in one room. It’s like, ‘Who am I going to encounter that I can talk to?’” she said. “We don’t know each other from outside, but you always find common ground.”