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.