From what I have gathered, the US is an interesting place when it comes to its legal process. For better or for worse, America has a jury system that randomly picks people in the voter registration rolls to be placed on juries for trials. Other places seem to be more picky about who can be a juror, and some nations aren’t good on having fair trials. But up until yesterday, I was a potential juror in my county. This was a unique experience for me, and most people I know haven’t been called themselves. Also, some states and counties do things differently here in the US. So, I want to talk about my experience.
It all began with a jury summons in the mail. Mine came back in late November or so, and I was supposed to get available for a two-week period. This was a problem because I already had plane tickets to get out of town before that period was over. But fortunately, the system allows you to defer your service one time to a later date. I didn’t know what was the best time to do this, but I chose January to make sure I got it out of the way as early in the year as possible and get to my research and other work. That period began the Tuesday before last after MLK day.
For the first day, I was supposed to get there by 10:30 in the morning, which isn’t too bad until you discover the parking situation in the city at that time, and the parking lots you were instructed to go to are said to be full (and yet that was a filthy, filthy lie!). So I came to the place a bit late (not knowing where to go in the building the first time didn’t help). But this was expected, and it’s not different than the army: hurry up and wait. So we started perhaps around 11, and we had our first bits of orientation. The basic thing we needed to know was that we were needed for the legal process to work, that the vast majority of cases are done without a jury, and we had to be around just in case a jury was needed during the times trials were taking place. Other places, I have been told, just have you on call so when your phone goes off you need to get to the government building; here, you had to be there and wait for the chance that a jury is called. However, they are flexible, and you can come in just the afternoons if you aren’t on a case.
Now, having about 90 people waiting around for several hours and day isn’t productive, but there were several things to keep people occupied. There were talks by others in the municipal court system, including the clerk, the auditor, one of the police officers in charge of the arraignment jail, and the judges. You could also go and watch some cases in certain courts. In the juror room itself, there was Wifi and a Blue-Ray player for movies. They had a good collection as well–mostly concert DVDs, but major films including The Avengers. So it was possible for me to either not go insane or get work done.
Now, I mentioned most cases do not have juries. They are mostly plea deals, cases thrown out, etc. To get an idea of the numbers, one judge in this county could see over 50 cases in a single day, let alone over a week, and there are several judges. There is no way to have a jury trial with this many cases since any jury trial will take at least two days–you have jury pooling, voir dire, opening statements, witnesses and evidence, cross examinations, objections and private consultations, closing statements, and then of course a verdict. This isn’t fast, so the majority of cases have to be done by the judge and lawyers on both sides hashing it out.
But with most cases finishing without a jury, it also meant that a large chunk of the people called in are not likely to actually become jurors at all. It was possible that I would sit there the whole time and never even have a chance to be deciding a case. And it seemed like that might have happened. On the third day I was there, the first pool was called for a jury, and I was the third name called. A jury will have eight members plus two alternates, so unless I was kicked off during voir dire, I was on this case. So I sat there waiting for the pool I was in to be taken up to the court. About half an hour after we were supposed to go, it was announced that the other people not called for the jury pool could go home because all other cases were done for that day, but I and the others had to stay. About another 15 minutes later, it was announced that that trial was postponed in some way, so we were off. The next pool would be randomly selected again.
Then comes the next week. Monday, no juries called. Tuesday, no juries called. Five days in a row, and no juries called. I wasn’t sure about this because I missed mornings so I could do my teaching work in the mornings, but when I asked I was told there hadn’t been any calls. At this rate perhaps no one was going to do any jury work.
Then comes Wednesday afternoon. I get there earlier than needed for the afternoon session so I could have lunch there and do some work. At 1:30 there is a presentation by the county auditor, especially focusing on property taxes and how they can be readjusted if the value of your home changes. Not the biggest draw for me since I only rent right now. A bit after he is done, there is an announcement that jurors are needed. Twenty names are chosen at random by a computer program. Ten will be part of the jury, but twenty are needed because of people kicked off during the voir dire process. My name was the 9th one, so I was at that point in the alternate position.
What happened next? I’ll tell you next time!