Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jury Duty: Never Again! (Part 1)

I should have known better.

When my jury summons arrived, even after publishing this article, I still had hopes of being involved in the administration of justice. So off I trotted yesterday, summons in hand, to do my civic duty. I hoped I wasn't going to be dealing with a drug trial, but a robbery or murder or even a civil case, that would be OK. I didn't expect to be so thoroughly aghast at being snookered into an system that is evil from the get-go.

Now the folks in the system worked efficiently and did much to make the experience bearable. Instructions to get to the marshalling room from the (free) parking garage were clear, They kept the line moving as they scanned our summonses and seated us in the marshalling room, which sat maybe 135 of us not quite elbow to elbow either in rows or around the side and rear walls. The lady MC was effortlessly pleasant as she explained how to find our juror numbers on our badges, as was the judge who introduced the video (a dandy collaboration between Comcast and the county justice people) that told us what we could expect to go through that day. They had wired the vending machine lounge outside the marshalling room and allowed us to trade our drivers’ licenses for Internet cables so we could surf while we waited. The judge who presided over the jury selection process had the accessible demeanor you’d want in your girlfriend’s father, and even the lawyers didn’t have fangs or claws.

It wasn’t until after lunch that the injustice struck me. We had been told in the morning that there were three trials beginning that day and that we were free to roam around the building provided we made ourselves available to return to the marshalling room “at a moment’s notice” when the trials reached the jury selection stage. None of them reached that stage in the two hours before lunch, but they called us in immediately after lunch and began empanelling us. As the MC called out our juror numbers, she joked, “You can’t win at Lotto, but you can win here. Sorry!” At that point, I flashed back to the spring day on which some of my fellow college freshmen found out that they would be spending the next winter in Vietnam.

I was juror number 25 of forty-five empanelled for a civil trial. They lined us up in order, allowing us to keep pretty much only the clothes we were wearing, and the tipstaff escorted us up to the courtroom, gave us sheets of paper imprinted with large numbers, and seated us. We filled the jury box and the spectator area of a room that was smaller than I expected, though not quite cramped. That took about fifteen minutes, after which the judge entered (there really is a guy that says, “Oyez, oyez” to start things off) and read us a spiel about how important we were to democracy and civilization and how we were discharging a sacred duty. Then the lawyers asked questions about our ability to render fair decisions; we were to raise our numbers if we, for example, knew the plaintiff or the defendant. After the questions were asked, the judge and the lawyers retreated to the jury room and began asking people to come in one by one for specific questioning.

Maybe it was because one of the articles I’d read that morning was about public school pep rallies, but as I looked around at the others who were waiting their turns during the two hours of individual questioning, I was reminded of the “they can make me come here but they can’t make me take it seriously” attitude of those pep rallies. Then I heard juror number 34 tell her neighbor that her husband was at home awaiting a liver transplant. I remembered that she had gotten up right away in the morning session when the MC had instructed anyone who faced hardship “besides work and child care concerns” (which aren’t eligible hardships—think “single mom with a McJob” and see if you agree). They had taken away her cell phone to bring her to the courtroom. If her husband were to receive a call that a liver was available, he would have two hours to be driven to downtown Philadelphia, which during peak hour can be two hours from our courthouse; if he couldn’t make it, they would call the next person on the list. Number 36 was a painter working for a shoestring operation. For that matter, neither number 25 nor his boss can afford him to be away from work. Our stories were repeated forty-five times in that room. And whether the other trials called juries or not, there were ninety other people just sitting around waiting.

Despite their pleasant demeanor, our time really meant nothing to our captors. Money can be recovered, but lost time is gone forever, and that system took away almost eleven hundred man-hours that day. Those who went home lost a day they could never get back. We who were empanelled—I am first alternate—will lose more. Number 34, mercifully, was sent home; I hope her husband didn’t lose his place in line for a liver as she waited.

And those who were seated? We are conscripts. And just as in war, men fight less for their country than to protect their buddies, I predict that our jury will render a verdict in the interests less of justice than of getting fellow jurors back into productive life. We shall see.

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4


  1. Any suggestions as to a system that would work better? I had the honor of serving two years ago for the first time ever. Yes, I lot work time - 4 days. In my case, it was no hardship to my employer, more to me personally, but I was excited for the opportunity. My case was civil, more of a "good grief, you are kidding me, right?" kind of trial. But I learned a lot about our judicial system and would love to serve again. My process was much like yours. Is the system flawed? You bet! At least we do have a system where TRY to treat people fairly and with impartiality both on the defense end and the service end.

  2. Check out the two links at the top of

    There's a tendency for people to apply standards to unusual alternatives, say, "Well, it won't be perfect," and write them off without asking whether it would be an improvement over the present system. No system will be perfect in this fallen world; I would suggest that his model has ways of keeping its imperfections from mayhem that the liberal and conservative models (which I would call two teams in the same league) lack.

    I'm working on a blog post on incentives that deals with your comments on law enforcement. Stay tuned!