Jury Duty!

perry_mason

As a trial lawyer, I have stood in front of juries a number of times.  However, I have also been called to sit inside the jury box as well as outside of it.  It was . . . well . . . .

Let’s get this out there – nobody wants to serve for jury duty.  I suppose there are some outliers, but they remind me of something Groucho Marx once said, which was something like any club that would accept him as a member was not one he would care to join.  Here, anyone who actually wants to be on a jury should probably be disqualified.  I subscribe to a similar rule for candidates running for President.

I remember as a kid when my grandma got called for jury service.  She lived in a small county-seat town in northwest Ohio, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else.  She got seated in the box and the defense lawyer asked if she knew the defendant.  She replied “I certainly do.”  It was not a terribly unusual response for that place and time.  Her tone of voice was probably what got her excused.

I never got a jury summons until after I was through with law school.  But I got on the list and was a popular choice for several years.  “You’ll get excused – nobody wants a lawyer on the jury” was the advice I received from my fellow lawyers.

And for several cycles, they turned out to be right. I just had to donate my morning to the county before I got put into the box and either or both of the attorneys saw that I was one of them.  Back to the office I would go.

This is not hard to understand, really.  We lawyers all know that any case that reaches trial has gray areas that a jury must navigate.  And the two lawyers in trial want to be in control of what gets to the jury for consideration.  Neither of them wants a free agent behind the closed door of the jury room spouting off legal opinions about their case, mostly because the lawyer has a tendency to turn into a kind of “super juror” who may sway others who think “well, he does this for a living so he must really know what he’s talking about.  I’ll follow his lead.”

But then there was that one time.  By then I had become used to the dance everyone had to do.  I had to show up.  The lawyers had to see that I was there and they would then have to get rid of me.

On this particular day I got seated in the box for a rape trial.  Crud, I thought, in a civil case I would be an automatic goner because that is what I do.  I don’t know either the prosecutor here or the defense counsel.  Oh well, surely they will get rid of me.

Until they didn’t.  But it got worse – I got chosen as – the alternate.

In my county, civil juries are 6 people and criminal juries are 12.  Both have an alternate appointed.  The alternate’s job is to sit there, take everything in and be ready to step in if one of the jurors has a massive heart attack three minutes before they reach a decision.  The alternate comes in to save the day, fully up to speed and ready to participate.

Except that situations calling for an alternate almost never happen, and certainly not in a one day trial.  And when you are a lawyer-juror who has been chosen as the alternate, well this is sort of like one of Dante’s circles of hell.  I had to be there, I had to listen to everyone, and I could not utter one single solitary word so long as there were twelve functioning jurors in the room.

A lawyer who cannot talk about a jury trial that all of the non-lawyers are talking about?  Yes, now you understand.

After a fairly long period of being ignored by my county court system, I recently received another jury summons.  And I learned a few things.

Before July of 2006 I had more options.  For example, both dentists and ferry boat operators were automatically exempt from jury service. Signing up for and completing dental school might have been a little extreme but there is a river not far from my house.  How hard would it be to run a rope across it and start charging people for rides across?   The law said nothing about being a profitable or successful ferry boat operator.  Sadly, I have discovered that those exemptions were repealed a few years ago.

The only other option is to become a felon, but with the way our court system works getting that accomplished within two or three weeks is probably not going to happen.  This course would also lead to some other undesirable outcomes.

So I quit trying to find ways around it and I can now report that we are back to the old pattern.  This time it was an armed robbery case, but I was fortunate enough to be near the back of the line when numbers were called and never made it into the jury box even for preliminary questioning.  And best of all I am exempt for the next two years.

Although I gripe about the inconvenience, I must acknowledge that it is a pretty good system that can haul a bunch of unwilling average citizens to the courthouse and give them the power to decide whether the police got the right guy or whether someone who got hurt or treated badly has a right to get reimbursed for his damage.  There are a lot of places in the world where this sort of thing would be laughed at.  Or where citizens would be envious.

And so next time I get that summons, I will donate another morning and be ready to serve in the (unlikely) event I am chosen.

Photo credit – Screen shot from the Perry Mason television show of the 1950s-60s.

14 thoughts on “Jury Duty!

  1. Jury duty is such a fun time. While my only time invited to dance inside the arena (instead of just waiting in the lobby) was for a two week civil trial, my luck was sort of on the same level – I was voted foreman (or whatever term) by fellow jurors. Herding cats is such a joy.

    The specifics you describe on the construct and terms of jurors are interesting as it seems every county / jurisdiction appears to have distinct variations of the same theme. It’s sort of like Kate Smith performing the national anthem differently than Jimmy Hendrix; different execution but still serving the same function.

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    • State court systems seem to be the last real examples of what true federalism looks like. In Indiana an awful lot of how a court operates from day to day is decided from county to county.
      A number of years ago I would occasionally get calls from a court one county away. A guy I had a judgment against would get arrested now and then and before they would let him out of jail he would have to make a payment on that judgment. In my county pigs would fly before that would ever happen.

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  2. Interesting stuff. I’ve got the letter for jury duty many times, but since I have hearing impairment I always claim medical deferral. Since it’s the ONLY good thing about having impaired hearing I’ll take it without guilt.

    Great point about interest in politics disqualifying you. I’ve long thought that my former manager should have run for public office. Picture a highly pragmatic engineer sitting down for his first news conference saying “Look, neither of us wanted this but here is the situation and what we need to do about it” Of course he would never run, and never get elected…

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    • The hearing loss would not get you automatically excused here. In my most recent turn a woman who expressed concern about her hearing ability got picked. The judge promised to seat her in the front row. She did at least say that she did ok with the voices of the attorneys who spoke.

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  3. I’ve only served on a jury once, and one of the other jurors was an attorney. We picked him as our foreman, and he really helped the rest of us make a quick unanimous decision. The unfortunate aspect was that this was a California “three strike” case and we had been cautioned by judge that the sentence could be severe, if found guilty, even though the charge was victim-less (at least at the time of arrest), though a felony. The only other court case I’ve ever sat through was on a field trip to the San Francisco Municipal court with my high school Civics class. That charge was public urination. I don’t remember the outcome.

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    • A sister in law served for a murder trial. She was sequestered for 3 weeks, which included the Thanksgiving holiday. It was a case which had received a lot of notoriety due to the level of brutality involved. I’m glad to have avoided one of those, but appreciate those who put their lives on hold.

      And isn’t the outcome of public urination – – – urine? 😁

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  4. I’m Canadian so our system may be different here but I was only called for jury selection once. There were 200 people in the room and by the time the first round elimination process was over there were less than 50 left – all mostly retired people. It was a sexual assault case against a minor, and it took the judge 15 minutes to read out the charges, but after each, the accused man very clearly and emphatically stated Not Guilty. I never saw his face, just his back. The judge excused anyone who had been a victim of sexual assault, or knew the victims, accused or the judge. (One guy said he played hockey with the judge). He then asked everyone who could not serve for other reasons to raise their hands and then he questioned them row by row. Many hands went up. I was in the back row so got to hear the sheer variety of reasons which was astonishing. Here you can get off with any excuse – no proof required – financially can’t afford to miss work, can’t find babysitting, medical reasons, have a doctors appointment, a sick spouse. parent, child, dog, a trip booked etc. I never heard so many excuses in my life – you would have thought half the city was sick or traveling. When the judge asked each person to stand and say why they could not serve, he would then give a very long pause and stare at them before he said yes or no. But he never said no, it was just the theatrics of it. When he finally got to me, I said I couldn’t be replaced at work. (I had a letter from my boss saying as I am a health care professional he wouldn’t be able to fill my shifts), The judge paused for what felt like an eternity. I left after he nodded I could go, but wondered how they went about picking 12 out of the remaining 50. I can see the point of eliminating people who don’t want to be there, but that leaves a jury skewed towards older retired people. Later I found out one of my patients was selected. I asked the verdict, not guilty. She said the trial took a week, and was interesting, but disturbing too. I was glad I hadn’t been chosen, but found the whole court process fascinating and somewhat intimidating if you had never been in a court room. I am retired now, so could be chosen again, and would have no excuse, unless I invent one! (Here in Canada, we are sent forms in the mail every once in awhile, and they chose from those – my 92 year old mother got one last year, so they don’t discriminate by age – but she would have to decline – I don’t think they allow recesses for naps! That seemed weird to me considering judges have mandatory retirement at 75). You must have a very interesting job. Sorry this is so long, but I find the topic interesting.

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    • The difference in systems between countries is indeed fascinating. While both of our countries trace the origins of our legal systems to England, I suspect that Canada may have followed some English practiced more fully than we did in the US.

      Our judges will usually let people go if service will result in some personal or financial hardship, but it has to be more than what everyone else is suffering.

      Whether jurors know the judge or a party or the attorneys seems to be more of an issue in large cities than in smaller rural counties where people naturally know others in their communities.

      Thanks for reading, by the way.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi.

    I happen to be one of those highly suspect individuals who’s always wanted to serve on a jury but never been selected—thinking it’s my civic duty and all that old-fashioned stuff. The closest I came was when the judge asked me if I knew any of the parties involved. Before I opened my mouth, the attorney for the defendant said, “She knows me, your Honor.” And so I did.

    I enjoyed this saga, J.P., and as a blogger who worries about word count and inevitably exceeds what I think the traffic will bear, I appreciate your leisurely strolls through your topics.

    Annie

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    • I understand the desire to give something back to the system. Those of us who are self employed have a practical problem, which is the minimal daily pay the county provides. I will say that the experience of getting to watch a real jury deliberate was invaluable to me in my ability to relate to their experience when I am in court as a lawyer.

      As for the word-count thing, I seem to be constitutionally unable to construct an essay in much under 1000 words. Whether this is a good or a bad thing I must leave to readers. 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m so glad you didn’t turn to a life of crime to escape jury duty, J.P.! You’re right that it can be a huge pain, and hugely disruptive (mine was a mold case that dragged on for two weeks). But with the rights we enjoy as citizens we also have to shoulder some responsibilities, so there you go. I’ll tell you what, though: If I get called up again, I am seriously considering dental school. 🙂

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    • I was really liking the ferry boat idea. The law said nothing to indicate that the existence of paying passengers was in any way required. Of course the $40 a day that the county pays if you actually serve is probably way better than I would do by ignoring my day job for a week or two while I play solitaire in an empty boat.

      Wow, 2 weeks of listening to people talk about mold – could anyone but a bunch of Nordic stoics stand up to that sort of thing? I salute you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Playing solitaire in an empty boat sounds way better to me than listening to people talk about mold nonstop. (Though, to be fair, a couple of them talked about allergies.)

        Liked by 1 person

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