31 January 2012

Jury Duty

A couple of weeks ago, I got a summons in the mail for jury duty.  Contrary to popular belief, attorneys are not exempt from jury duty (at least not in my state).  I responded to the summons, filling out a fairly elaborate online form and marking in my calendar the date I was due to report.  I was warned several times of the dire consequences of ignoring the summons.

When I mentioned to people I knew that I had been called for jury duty, I was generally met with one of two responses.  The first response was surprise:  aren't attorneys exempt?  The second response was, "How are you going to get out of it?"  Sometimes people, trying to be helpful, suggested ways of getting out of serving.  The most common ploy, apparently, is to tell the judge or attorneys during jury selection that you are a racist.  Name the group of people you are biased against; it's helpful if that group includes the defendant in the case.  They'll send you right home.

I do not approve of people who try to avoid jury service.  The right to trial by jury is an important one guaranteed by both the state and the federal constitutions.  We live in a society where we are entitled to be judged by our peers, in a group representative of the community.  Legions of soldiers have lost their lives defending this and other rights.  Refusing to serve on a jury just because it's inconvenient is shortsighted.  Like voting, trial by jury is a right you might not use every day, but trust me, if you lost it and someday needed it, you'd miss it.

So, inconvenient as it was, I showed up yesterday at the county courthouse at 8:15 in the morning to fulfill my duty.  I had to park in a gated lot and take a ticket; when I got inside, the officials in Central Jury validated my ticket so that I would not have to pay upon my exit.  I was escorted into a big waiting room with chairs, tables, a coffee machine, and a big television set.  I sat with about 150 other potential jurors and watched a short video presentation about jury service and what it entails.  We were told that the Central Jury officials would not have an idea until later in the day how many jurors would be needed.  We were instructed to wait until we were called to a panel.

I pulled out my laptop, but the internet service in the jury waiting room did not work.  Fortunately, I had brought my knitting.  I knitted and sipped coffee all morning, chatting casually with the people sitting around me.  One of my neighbors was also a knitter, so I chatted mostly with her and admired the beautiful sweater she was making.  We agreed to watch each other's things when we got up for more coffee or to use the bathroom.  At 12:30, we got an hour-long lunch break.  I bought a sandwich in the court cafeteria and ate it while I continued to knit.  The day ticked away.

Around 2:30, about 20 people were randomly selected and called to be screened for a potential jury.  They got up and left the room; some time afterward, about half of them returned, apparently having been rejected for one reason or another from that particular jury.  The rest of us sat and waited.  The baby blanket I was knitting grew and grew.

And then, at about 3:45, we were told we could leave.  We would not be needed, and we were assured that, having fulfilled our duty by showing up, we would not be called for at least another three years.

All 150 jurors left at the same time and headed for the parking lot.  I sat in my car and waited in line patiently behind them and all the paying customers for about half an hour to exit through the manned gate.

My entire day had been lost.  I had had to drop my children off early at school, and someone else had had to pick them up.  I had not gotten to the supermarket, walked the dogs, made important calls.  Now, I am not complaining about jury service, because, as I pointed out, I consider it an important duty to fulfill.  However, I have some modest suggestions as to how it could have been improved.  I don't know whether anyone in northern New Jersey is listening, but just in case they are, here are three modest ideas:

1)  It amazes me that, in this day and age of advanced technology, jury service is handled the same way it was in 1970.  There is no need to hold 150 people hostage in a room for an entire day "just in case" a jury is needed.  Why not collect cell phone numbers, or distribute beepers, when jurors check in, and then instruct them that they must reappear within 30 minutes of being summoned by text message or page?  Everyone in that room lived within 30 minutes of the courthouse.  Errands could have been run, and children picked up, without jeopardizing availability.

2)  You cannot expect a room full of working people to survive an entire day as captives in a courthouse without fully functional internet access.  Had the internet connection worked, I could have gotten some work done while I was waiting.  I suspect the stress level and the complaining in the room would have decreased significantly if people had been able to work and take care of other obligations.  Also, if I had known that the internet connection was not reliable, I could have brought paper copies of my work with me.

3)  A separate parking lot, or a separate exit from the general lot, would have saved the jurors and the parking personnel a lot of time and aggravation.  When 150 already-grumbly people all leave a building at once, and are then forced to wait in line to exit, they get grumblier.  They vow they will never do this again.

The bottom line is that jury duty doesn't have to be an enormous inconvenience or an unpleasant experience.  We have the technology to make it, as they say in the medical field, minimally invasive and comfortable.  If the system were streamlined, and if technology were used optimally, I am absolutely certain that there'd be far fewer professed racists walking around in my county.


jhl said...

I have never actually had to appear for jury duty, but I confess, stories like yours are part of the reason I've been counting my lucky stars. I think your suggestions are great; is there a reason they don't reform this system to make it both better for the jurors and more efficient for themselves? Are they afraid that if they let people go, for example, that they won't get them back? The whole thing does seem pretty archaic.

Jane said...

Such an intriguing post, Jennie. As a solicitor, I am exempt from jury duty - all over Australia, so I understand. I am amazed at how antiquated your system is. Your suggestions seem eminently sensible. Have you thought of writing a letter to the effect to your Attorney-General (or whatever your equivalent is)? J x