Friday, March 04, 2005

Jury Duty

Not too long ago, I received my first California Jury summons. Most people dread getting these things, but I was excited. I wanted to serve on a trial. Dispense some justice. Have a heated debate in the jury room with people who misinterpreted vital evidence. That was my vision. Having never had jury duty, I just had to use my imagination. Oh, sure. I'd been summoned before. I've received three calls to duty in the past. One I deferred because I was in Maryland but the duty was in Mass. They never re-summoned me. One I deferred because my grandfather had died and my duty was during the funeral. They never re-summoned me. The third, I had to call in the Friday before my date for instructions. I was instructed that they did not need me. But now, at last! My chance...

I wanted to be prepared, so I asked the admin for my department what I needed to know for jury duty. She told me that I needed to tell her when it was and that I had to get a timesheet from the court for each day I was there. These would be stapled to my time card here at work. I explained that I had no idea how long my duty would be. It could be for one day or it could be for more. She said that was fine. She's put me on the schedule for one day and we would go from there. Anything else I need to know? Nope. Good. Now, I'm prepared.

I showed up for duty bright and early on a Tuesday morning. Monday was President's Day, so court was closed. I made it with time to spare, which was good, because the security checkpoint is tough and slow. If you have a special ID of some sort, you can show it to the guard and bypass the screening. So, don't sass the court clerk. She doesn't have to go through a metal detector and could be packing. I was not special. I had to take off my shoes and empty my pockets and all that fun stuff. Not as stringent as the airport, but the staff was just as humorless.

I wandered through the door and was given one of those plastic pin-on sleeves that typically hold "Hello my name is..." cards. This, I was told, is for my juror badge. The badge is important. It allows me into the jury "lounge". I use quotes there because the word lounge conjures up images of comfort and this room did conjured up images of an RMV. There were rows of umcomfortable chairs that were attached to each other and the floor. There are a few tables with chairs around them, but those filled up well before I got there. There were bookshelves holding jigsaw puzzles and books and magazines. Then there was the quiet room. No talking in the quiet room. No cell phones in the quiet room. This was for people who wanted quiet. Of course, if you were in the quiet room and your name was called, you couldn't say "Here!" Well, you could, but the woman at the podium wouldn't hear it and so she'd call you again. Because of this, the door to the quiet room was kept propped open.

The badge also has another purpose. It is there to tell plaintiffs, defendants, lawyers, and judges to run away from you. Nobody wants you to overhear something that will compromise their case. And if you do overhear something, you need to tell the judge right away. Imagine a defendant going over strategy with his lawyer. You are sitting next to him and he doesn't see your badge. Then they go in for jury selection and you are in the box!

So, back to the lounge. The room claims a maximum capacity of five hundred and sixty-eight. We were pretty close to full by the time the juror coordinator stepped up to the podium. We then received thirty minutes of instruction on how to fill out our juror survey. There were lots of special codes and checkboxes. She went down the list of reasons why you would be allowed to skip checking the VLT box. I didn't meet any of them and had to check it. VLT stands for Very Long Trial. They were picking a jury that day for a two month trial! They needed a pool of sixty and ninety were eligible. I didn't like my odds.

After they collected the forms for data entry, we were given a pep talk by a judge. He gave us a bit of trivia, only part of which was true. Which founding father believed that the right to trial by jury was MORE important than the right to vote? It was Thomas Jefferson. That was the one he got right. He also perpetuated the Lee Marvin, Captain Kangaroo, Iwo Jima hoax. I'm guessing he got the email and liked the story, so he thought he would pass it on without fact checking. That happense all the time, but this is the judge who is supposed to determine whether or not a case is ready to go to trial. Shouldn't he be all about fact checking?

Then we got to watch a fifteen minute movie about how cool and fun jury duty is. It was a patchwork of simulated courtroom action, judges addressing jurors, and interviews with REAL jurors! I managed to stay awake for the whole thing. But I was getting antsy. When would I get to do my part? When would I get to uphold the Constitution? Not yet, it appeared. After the movie, we were give a forty-five minute break. They needed to get all the names into the system and code people according to allowed pools. They also needed to find out which courts needed jurors. Hurry up and wait.

When we returned from break, the called the sixty names for the mega trial. We were told it was a high profile civil suit. The names were read alphabetically. I lost count around the letter K. I wanted to count because I had hoped to gauge my chances as the number selected approached sixty. We made it to the letter W and I still had not been called. She called one W and then another. I tried to figure out how the second was spelled. While I was doing this, she said "Last, but not least, Brian Weissman." I called out "Here!" in a tone that was a little exasperated. This got a big laugh. Small consolation.

While I was intrigued at the possibility of a long an interesting civil trial, my boss was not. He hadn't really wanted me to miss any time at all. So, now I felt I had to ditch my civic duty. And naturally, I couldn't ditch it until the next day. Our case was convening for jury selection the next day at ten a.m. This was unfortunate as I was the scheduled parent helper for Josh's class the next day. I had to ditch on that which forced Lynnea to have to ditch on her volunteer work in Maya's class. So, basically, it screwed everyone up and was going to have my boss mad at me.

After I got home, we were discussing my options. My wife wanted me to just go to court late. Even though I was scheduled for ten a.m., there were sixty people to deal with. They could just deal with me last. She suggested telling them that I had car trouble. Maya said "So, it's OK to lie to the court?" Ouch. NO. No, it is not. It's not okay to lie and Daddy is not going to lie.

I worked the phones for a while and discovered from HR that I am only covered for ten days of duty. After that, any work I miss is unpaid. NOW they tell me. This is a detail I would have liked in response to my "anything else I need to know" inquiry. So, I called the court and told them my plight. They told me I still had to show up at ten and tell it to the judge. So, it looked like I was going to get out of jury duty, but not in enough time to help in Josh's class.

I showed up to court, went through security again, got my timesheet, and took a spot outside the courtroom. All the seats were taken. As I was walking from the lounge to the courtroom, I noticed something. Most of the faces inside the jury room were white. I counted five African Americans or so and about thirty Hispanics. Both these numbers were severly out of sync with the demographics of the area. There were a smattering of Asians, but they seemed to be in proportion to the population. The latest demographics for our area suggest seven percent for the African Americans and forty to fifty percent for the Hispanics. That translates to around thirty-five blacks and two hundred Hispanics. Even with statistical sampling errors, something seemed out of whack here. The observation got more interesting as I walked through the halls. Ninety percent or more of the people I encountered in the halls were black or Hispanic. Except for the lawyers. They were a mix.

I've tried to reason out a logical way where this could occur and the system still be racially unbiased. I didn't come up with anything. Jurors are selected from voter rolls and the pool of licensed drivers. At first I thought that perhaps the middle and upper class white people had more stable addresses. But there are plenty of middle and upper class Hispanics who have lived in the same place for a significant enough time that it shouldn't matter. Then I thought that perhaps a higher portion of minorities simply don't respond. I dismissed that notion though as I would imagine that spot checking would be bound to catch some of them statistically. I suppose to really draw any conclusions, I'd have to view multiple samples and collect several pieces of demographic data to do the analysis properly.

Anyway, I made it to the courtroom early and had to stand around. The bailiff came out to take roll call at about twenty past ten. First he came out to say he was going to come out to take roll call. It was the five minute warning. Roll call was alphabetical. One person was missing. We were told we couldn't start unless everybody was there. Glad I didn't show up late. The bailiff came out twice more to see if our missing juror had arrived. Then he had to report the delinquent to the judge. He arrived while this was going on. No apology. No explanation. I suspect he did what it was suggested I do. Then the clerk came out to assign numbers. If you got one of the first eighteen, you were to go inside and give the bailiff your number. You got to sit in the box. Everyone else had to find an empty seat. I didn't mind that I had not gotten a chance to present my excuse yet. I wanted to see as much of the process as possible before I was excused and had to return to work.

I didn't get into the top eighteen, so I found a seat in the courtroom. I wanted to be close to the end since I knew I was leaving, but my timing was bad and I ended up all the way on the inside end of a row. We rose for the judge and then got some preliminary information. We were told the title of the case, which I can't remember because it was so long. The plaintiff was legally incompetent and was suing an eye surgery center, its doctor, and all associated incorporated bodies. Actually, his guardian brought the suit on his behalf, but you get the idea. Most likely, the plaintiff had some elective eye surgery that didn't go as planned. I was looking forward to the question by all the attorneys so I could deduce more. Unfortunately, this was the part of the program where the judge asked if anyone needed to be excused.

To my surprise, about a dozen hands went up. I thought I would be one of the few as there were so many opportunities to get out of it the day before. I would have if I had known that my office only paid ten days. I expected a gew sheepish hand raises, as opposed to twenty percent of the pool. We each had to give our reason for dismissal to the judge one at a time. He asked questions and took notes. Then he invited the attorneys to his chambers to discuss how to proceed. He was followed out by about ten lawyers! Clearly this was going to be a battle for the ages.

The excuses were varied. Some of them were lame. Others didn't fit into any of the categories from the day before. For example, one of the categories was a pre-paid vacation. If you already had it scheduled and paid for, you didn't have to check VLT. But what if you have planned to drive across country over a two month span? Doesn't fit, but involves many of the same logistical issues. This was one I considered legit. Mine was legit and I apologized for not knowing the information previously. The employer ten day max qualifies as financial hardship for a case of this length.

There were a couple I didn't, amongst them a whiny woman who said her chiropractor wasn't sure she could sit for long periods of time. The judge said that they could make accomodations for that. Then she threw in that she was self-employed and this would represent a financial hardship. Self-employed was one of the categories from the previous day. She could have checked it then if it was true. There was also a woman who had an out of town court date. To me, this was the same thing as if she had a business trip already planned. She shouldn't have checked the box. The judge offered to accomodate her as well. As soon as this happened, her court hearing turned into an open ended ordeal. She didn't know how long she would be out of town.

Then there was the elderly man who had a lung condition. When he gets a cold, he typically ends up being hospitalized. He wanted the court to know because it was cold and flu season. He was concerned that he could get sick in the middle of the trial and have to drop out. My favorite excuse was the woman in front of me. She had just started a new job and missing that amount of time would have been detrimental to her career and unfair to her teammates. They would have to pick up the slack in her absence. The judge asked if she was told her advancement would suffer as punishing someone who has jury duty is not legal out here. She told him that she was not specifically told this, but it would happen as a matter of course, as she would not be completing any work while her peers, who were hired with her as a class, would. So, he was curious. "What is this position? Where do you work?" She was forced to come clean. "I'm a deputy District Attorney for the City of Vista." What a coincidence. We were in Superior Court IN Vista.

There was also a woman who had to cart her son's sports equipment to practice every Thursday. She could make other arrangements for a couple weeks, but not two months. The judge asked her if she did this Thursday afternoons. There was a hint in his voice that court might get out early on Thursdays. She told him that it was actually in the mornings. "If court didn't start until ten on Thursdays, I'd be fine." The judge smiled. "Boy is THIS your lucky day." Apparently, on Thursdays, his court addresses motions and other issues until ten.

The judge returned and dismissed everyone who asked except the sports equipment lady. We all returned to the jury room to have our cards scanned. I figured she was just checking us back in. No such luck. We were done. Clock out. Go back to work. While she was doing it she scolded us all for checking the VLT box. Some people defended themselves explaining that they didn't meet her instructions. Others blamed her and scolded right back saying that she screwed up. I just apologized, took my timesheet, and went to work. Hopefully they'll call again in a year and I can give it another go.