Jury Duty

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That piece of snail-mail is called a summons, not a request. And it isn’t polite, it specifically states that if you don’t show up, you will be in contempt of court. Now that can be a serious legal offense, subjective to the judge, and we’ve all read about people who wasted considerable time in jail for committing it. Taking contempt one step further, it could lead to resisting arrest, and getting shot, so I don’t throw that junk mail away.

I had not visited a courthouse since my buddy the ER doc went broke defending himself from a politically motivated murder charge, and that case was finally thrown out of court nearly a decade ago. So I was not prepared for the dozen armed policemen milling around the foyer, eyeing the tax-paying jurors with amused contempt and hostile suspicion, or the x-ray machine and the walk-through metal detector that stood inside the door. It occurred to me to ask one of the cops to roust the bums sleeping on the park benches outside, then I thought maybe the bums understood the purpose of "public" property better than I did.

I arrived early and I took the opportunity to examine the hallway décor. Three prominent posters caught my eye and one, surprise, displayed the Bill of Rights. I stood there reading it, and thinking about it, for several minutes while my fellow draftees wandered into the central courtroom. Nobody paused or expressed the slightest interest in what I was conspicuously reading on that poster. Likewise, there was a notice posted next to the courtroom door that I stopped to read; it clearly stated that all juror conversations were videotaped and could be used in evidence against you. Very reassuring. I made a point of speaking to nobody.

I looked for the video cameras inside the courtroom. If they were there, I could not see them. As more and more prospective jurors arrived, I also looked for the ubiquitous occupancy notice that one sees in every restaurant and on every elevator. No such notice was posted in the room or on the elevators. There was one small fire-sprinkler on the left wall — or was it a camera? So here we were, one hundred and fifty people crammed into a room on the fourth floor, while the only staircase I had noticed was two left-turns down two hallways. The place was a fire trap.

We were entertained for an hour by the Court Clerk and his assistants, all upbeat in their snappy blue blazers, on the subject of jury duty and civic responsibility. This routine was new to me, but maybe it’s a regional thing. Then they divided us up by numbers — we were all assigned numbers — and sent us off to a jury selection courtroom, where we were carefully seated by number, seven to a bench. There I watched the lawyers busy matching numbers with names and questionnaires and making notes on a seating chart. I also watched the court recorders, surely the most redundant members of the crew these days, play around with a computer in front of the judge’s bench. The entire procedure seemed quaintly out of date, but then it wasn’t their time I was wasting.

When the judge arrived, we learned that the court needed seven jurors for seven one-day trials that week, and that some of us would be chosen. The first jury would be chosen immediately, and the defendant was in the courtroom. The judge read the charges. Then the prosecuting attorney stood up and started to ask questions of specific jury prospects, based on their previous answers on the questionnaire. General questions were also directed to the group, like has anybody ever gotten a traffic ticket? This dragged on for a while, and I was losing interest, when I heard this question: Does anybody feel like government is too intrusive?

Funny how your mind can go from idle to full speed ahead in a split second. Why would a two-bit lawyer in a two-bit county court ask a sweeping philosophical question of life and death importance? Western Civilization may hinge on the answer to that question, yet it is of zero relevance in a jury selection for the trial of a trivial dispute. Why ask? Is this some kind of backdoor terrorist test devised by the DOJ? Is the FBI interested in who answers yes? The courtroom became still and quiet, and the one person who almost answered the question said, cautiously, no, I guess not, when probed. (It wasn’t me.) People were scared.

The moment passed, and the other lawyer got up to ask more general questions. As lunchtime approached, the lawyers went into a huddle with the judge and the seating charts, and two minutes later my bench of seven was chosen for this particular trial. We were then allowed to leave, with instructions on when to return; everybody else had to come back after lunch. I felt relieved, for I never had to say a word.

I felt less relieved later on when somebody told me that by not speaking up I had lied to the court. What? I was there under duress, solely due to the threat of punishment, and there is no moral requirement to volunteer information under duress. If I am robbed at gunpoint, for example, I am not obliged to tell the thief that I have money hidden in my shoe. Nor am I obliged to tell the court what I think about a jury summons, or the crime called contempt of court, as such a telling would be. I had just read the Fifth Amendment, after all.

The trial to which I was assigned never happened. We seven showed up on time, and sat in the jury room for two hours while the lawyers and the judge wrangled over procedural details. The judge declared a mistrial, thanked us, and sent us on our way. Complying with the law cost me ten hours of my life. I have no idea what this fruitless pursuit cost the tax-payers; the judge, the lawyers, the bailiff, and the recorders were all county employees, and the building itself was "public" property.

The issue in this case was trivial, a dispute that would never arise in a proprietary setting, such as a private community, where who-owned-what was clear. The procedures I witnessed were wasteful, and did not compare well with private arbitration procedures I have witnessed in the past, where everybody meets at a prearranged time and gets down to business immediately, where every individual’s time is precious. I only hope that eventually our antiquated "justice" system fades into obscurity in competition with innovative private systems that can offer real justice with a money-back guarantee. I also hope that I never get a summons in the mail again.

Robert Klassen [send him mail] is a retired med tech and writer. Here’s his web site.

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