Recently, I was called for jury duty. When I received the summons, I groaned. I am no stranger to jury duty. I survived many years of adulthood without being called. Once I received my first “invitation” in California, however, I became a jury duty magnet. For about six years, I routinely found summonses in my mailbox the very instant I was eligible to be called after a prior service.
When I went to jury duty in California, I found the entire process to be as irritating as cheap shoes. At first, I found it interesting. The experience lost its luster as I watched the legal system work. Maybe “dabble” would be a better word because nothing ever seemed to actually work. There were hordes of potential jurors crumpled into a giant jury assembly room. The crowd was typically SRO by the time a clerk officially opened the proceedings by introducing a video explaining the nobility of jury service. The video starred Fess Parker. I’m not sure I was alive when that video was made.
Trials in California were often protracted, complicated affairs. Jury selection alone often took an entire week. Thousands of potential jurors hung out in hallways while mysterious goings-on inside the courtrooms sucked time out of the day, moment by agonizing moment. I’ve heard the saying that “they also serve who stand and wait.” That saying must have been about jury duty. Fess Parker would be proud of me, given the amount of time I have spent waiting in jury duty.
You may think I exaggerate when I say “thousands of potential jurors” and maybe I do. However, it was not at all unusual for a judge to call over 100 potential jurors for a single trial. The process of whittling down this cast of hundreds to twelve jurors and two alternates was painstaking…. and painsgiving. Judges would usually start the jury selection process by hearing the requests of anyone asking to be excused. People tried everything they could think of to get excused. They’d unearth long forgotten relatives with some tenuous connection to law enforcement. Maybe they didn’t actually have a family member who was a convicted felon, but they had one who played one on tv. Prospective jurors prepared lists of exotic ailments that rendered them incapable of service. Everyone had philosophical, moral, emotional, or religious issues that prevented them from being a fair and impartial jury member.
After years of hearing every possible reason a potential juror could give for asking to be excused, the judges were kind of jaded. There were times when this hard-heartedness about jury excuses bordered on the ridiculous. There was one poor woman who explained that she was scheduled to fly to another state to be a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding. The judge denied her request because there were other bridesmaids. Audible gasps echoed throughout the courtroom. The other hopefuls waiting in the long line to request an excuse realized they didn’t have a prayer, unless they developed a sudden need for a kidney transplant. The attorneys on both sides of the aisle quickly submitted a joint motion to the court that the juror be excused. They based this motion on their very justifiable belief that there was no way this lady would be thinking about anything during the entire trial except how pissed off she was at the judge. I think we were all relieved when the judge finally agreed.
While that story had a happy ended, the point is that the level of interest in serving jury duty is so subterranean that the judges can’t even allow themselves to be reasonable in considering requests for excuse.
All of this debating and juror-whittling takes quite some time. It gave me a good opportunity to observe my fellow captives…. uh, I mean “potential jurors.” To be honest, a lot of these folks seemed kind of sketchy. Listening to the responses during voir dire did nothing to increase my confidence in them. I was more freaked out by many of the potential jurors than I was by the defendants- the actual alleged bad guys. I often marveled at the thought that, if I should ever be on trial, this pool of folks would be considered a “jury of my peers.” The idea was pretty humbling…. and disturbing. Clearly, jury duty is a deterrent to crime.
Even though my new colleagues often seemed dodgier than the defendants, the defendants were pretty scary, too. In all my experiences with California jury duty, I never saw an arm or a neck on a defendant. Every one of them wore a long-sleeved, high-collared shirt. Apparently, the most common legal advice given by public defenders in Southern California is that the defendant should attempt to cover his or her gang tattoos. This proves difficult when a defendant has them on his or her face, but those long-sleeved, high-collared shirts do cover a multitude of sins.
Every trial I ever encountered was messy. They all involved violent crime. They often involved crimes against both persons and property. There was often conflicting and self-serving testimony. Typically, there were multiple charges that would each need individual verdicts. As jurors, we were given numbers and always referred to by those numbers in the courthouse to protect our privacy and, potentially, our personal safety.
Given what I’ve just told you, you probably understand why I groaned upon receiving the jury summons here in Florida.
When I arrived at the courthouse for my Florida jury duty, I was pleasantly surprised. The jury assembly room was comfortable and spacious. There was ample room for the 75 or so people who showed up to serve. No hordes of any kind. The people all seemed pretty normal and law-abiding. There was no Fess Parker video. When a batch of us were called (by our actual names!) to go to the courtroom, about 50 of us filed into place.
As it turned out, those of us who marched into the courtroom were a pool for three different unrelated trials! In California, the voir dire process for even a single trial would have made mincemeat out of such a puny number of jurors. In the Florida court process, the idea was to actually select three juries with a reasonable amount of efficiency. Getting everyone together at one time- judge, all of the defendants, all of the attorneys, and the potential jurors- avoided a lot of duplication of effort.
Another interesting aspect of the jury duty experience is that none of the three trials involved violence. Two involved driving under the influence, with no alleged harm to person or property. The defendant in the final trial was accused of contracting without a license. I was kind of stupefied. I’d bet money that none of these cases would ever see the inside of a Southern California courtroom. If anyone cared enough to prosecute them, they would certainly be settled long before there was any need to select a jury.
Another interesting phenomenon was that the attorneys asked everyone what his or her reaction was to being called for jury duty. Over half my colleagues were not only okay with it, but were excited about serving. I thought I had fallen down a rabbit loophole in the legal system. Once the court had taken our jury duty emotional temperature, the attorneys moved on to more formal and individualized questioning. Ultimately, no one who expressed any reservations or disappointment about jury duty ended up on a trial.
During the discussion for both the DUI cases, people seemed fairly low key. One gentleman, sadly, had lost his wife to a drunk driving accident. While he was not selected for either DUI trial, there was no drama or emotion around the discussion. He answered the questions about his experience, but felt he could be impartial. In California, I doubt he would have had a chance to even warm his seat before being sent packing. Here, they kept him in the pool for questioning for the entire day.
When we started the process for the contracting without a license case, all hell broke loose. All the people who sat, reasonable and rational and unemotional, through the entire discussion of the DUI trials suddenly became impassioned and eloquent. I had a hard time understanding why no one seemed particularly emotional or stirred up by driving under the influence of alcohol, but almost everyone seemed to explode over the idea that anyone could be evil enough to install windows without governmental approval. People were actually excused because they felt they could not be impartial about the issue.
Ultimately, I did not get selected for any of the three juries. I wasn’t exactly brokenhearted. Still, I have to say that my tolerance for jury duty increased during my day of service. I’m never going to be one of the people who raise their hands to say “pick me, pick me!” when the attorneys question them about their level of enthusiasm over receiving a jury summons. On the other hand, I am no longer tempted to schedule unnecessary surgery simply to get excused.
I’m such a good citizen.
Anybody else have a jury duty story you care to share? Or what about just a story about some relatively minor thing that seemed very different after you made a huge change in your life like moving or retiring? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at email@example.com.
Have a judicious day!
2 thoughts on “Civic Duty”
I was highly entertained by this post. It was so Californian! Having lived in LA myself for a short time during my early 20’s I remember many kooky interactions with the natives. (I was only once called for jury duty in tame Vermont, and wasn’t selected.) I appreciated your experience with the judicial system out west, especially the inevitable showbiz spin with the Fess Parker film!
Awww… the glamorous life of a California juror!
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