About a month ago, when we drove down to the main drag to pick up our mail, I plucked a surprise out of our post office box. In large red letters, the envelope announced JURY SUMMONS.
My first thought was “oh, what a pain.” I am so busy at work and this will interfere with my travels to southern California to conduct the training classes that I’ve been planning for months. My second though was “it will be fun and interesting to serve on a jury again.”
What did not go through my mind was the thought that everyone else seems to have in such situations: “How can I get out of it?” My wife tells stories of how her late father wouldn’t vote for fear of being added to county lists of potential jurors. Apparently, he was not alone. These days, I hear they use DMV lists for this purpose. Lots of people don’t vote but, at least in California, almost everyone drives.
I believe there is a reason it’s called “jury duty.” Serving when called is a civic duty, not unlike the obligation to pay taxes. In both cases, failure to fulfill one’s obligation to society can land you behind bars.
I remember the first time I was called for jury duty. This was back in New York. I was in my twenties and hadn’t much of a clue about the process. Then, as now, summoned jurors were expected to call the day before and listen to a recording to hear whether the group number on the summons was called to report. Sure enough, my number was up right away. I reported to the courthouse, sat in the jury assembly room for a couple of hours and was eventually called to voir dire in a civil case. The twelve jurors were selected, and I was up for one of the two alternate spots. Now, I had no intention of sitting through a trial just to be sent home without the opportunity to sit in deliberation with the other jurors. Being young and foolish, I viewed this as a waste of time instead of the integral part of the process that it is. Fortunately for me, I knew one of the people on the witness list and hoped that mentioning this fact would get me excused. When one of the attorneys asked if there was any reason I would be unable to serve as a fair and impartial juror, I got out exactly one word of my answer. “Well,” I began, and was immediately cut off by the judge who asked me not to say anything further. Excused! I suppose they were concerned that I would say something that would prejudice the other jurors.
Years later, I finally did serve when I lived down in the Central Valley. It was a criminal trial involving lots of drug charges and a group of people who had a nice little business running a meth lab out in the sticks. I was so glad when we were able to convict those miscreants.
Last weekend, I dialed the number on the jury summons to see if my group had been called. The message said to call back after five on Monday. When I did so, my group number was up for Tuesday. I texted my boss to let her know that duty called.
My wife dropped me off at the courthouse downtown, an impressive six-story edifice reached from the street by means of two flights of stairs and walking across a plaza. For those of us who have mobility issues but are not in wheelchairs, this can be daunting. As it is, the traffic was bad downtown and we had a heck of a time navigating the maze of one-way streets leading to the courthouse. I was already late and we were not about to drive around some more looking for the correct one-way street that might lead to a side of the courthouse that would have a handicapped ramp. Gripping the railings, I slowly pulled myself up all those steps, carrying my little Whole Foods bag packed with enough food and water for the duration.
After being scanned through the metal detector, I headed for the elevator up to the jury assembly room. Riding up with several others, one of my fellow occupants of the lift remarked that she smelled popcorn. Another said that all we needed now was a movie. A third assured us that we would indeed see a movie shortly. I rolled my eyes. Probably a little five-minute flag-waving video about the important part that jurors play in the judicial system and the democratic process generally. I had no idea of what was to come.
Exiting the elevator, I was confronted with a mass of humanity. A large open mezzanine with what seemed like hundreds of seats was completely full. I learned where the start of the line was and was shocked. The line snaked around and around the mezzanine, eventually turning into a hallway and then into the jury assembly room, where it again snaked around several corners. I could not begin to estimate how many people were present.
Fortunately, the courthouse was a cool respite from the 100 degree plus heat outside. However, I questioned whether I would be able to stand on my feet long enough to reach the end of the line. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the line moved along. In less than 15 minutes, I was able to collect my badge holder and show my summons to the clerk behind the window. I was told to take a seat.
Um, where? I did not see a single seat that was vacant. I peeked into an adjoining room. Also full. I walked up and down the aisles until I found a seat that was occupied not by a person but by a cell phone and a bag. “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked. I figured that the owner of those belongings had probably run to the rest room and would be right back. Luckily, I was wrong. The occupant of the adjacent seat picked up the items and I was able to sit down. Whew!
By then, I was the one who needed to use the rest room. I was reluctant to abandon my seat, however, for fear that I would not find another. I noticed that several people were standing, leaning against the walls.
The jury clerk welcomed us over a microphone that could be heard both in the jury assembly room and out in the mezzanine, where the snaking line continued to deliver more potential jurors to the window. “We’re going to have a party!” the cheerful clerk announced. Oh, brother.
The assistant presiding judge came in, took the mike and thanked us for participating in the judicial process. There were 580 of us today, he announced. He could just as well have said 5,080 and I would have believed. Men, women, young ones, old ones, guys in T-shirts, guys in suits, women in jeans, women dressed to the nines. People working on the jigsaw puzzles set out at four stations. People talking on cell phones, reading the newspaper, texting, playing games on iPads, doing homework while balancing laptops and textbooks. People staring off into space. People chatting with each other. People ignoring their neighbors. People with their eyes closed, seemingly asleep.
I texted work, checked email and then put my phone away for fear that I’d run out of charge. No outlets in which to plug a charging cord were in evidence. The clerk announced that the courthouse plaza was being used in the evenings as a homeless encampment and that the court could not vouch for the cleanliness of the picnic tables and benches outside. Then she told us she’d put on some movies, but that they were all rated PG. Sounds about right for a courthouse.
There were two flat screen TVs in the jury assembly room, on which a steady stream of Blu-Ray movies were shown all day. I wondered whether they showed the same movies over and over, day in and day out, and whether the clerks ever got bored with them.
The first movie was a kids’ flick with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, Parental Guidance. The premise involved a washed-up baseball announcer and his wife taking care of their spoiled rotten grandkids for a week. I actually watched most of this unfunny comedy, at least until it became to stupid to bear. Then came Zookeeper, which I think was supposed to be a romantic comedy, featuring a talking lion, giraffe, gorilla, monkey and other assorted members of a loquacious menagerie. Appropriately, I suppose, Adam Sandler was the voice of the monkey. I guess I made it through about half the film before I couldn’t take the stupidity. That was followed by You Again and several others, by which time I had totally zoned out and stopped paying attention.
Every so often, the clerk would pause the movie to read off a list of names of those who were to report to a particular courtroom for jury selection. She urged us to say “Here!” nice and loudly when our names were called so that she, or her counterpart with the hundreds out in the mezzanine, could be checked off the list. She began to read the list. With each name, I heard the cry of “Here!” either close by or faintly off in the distance. As to the unseen masses sitting out in the mezzanine, we’d here a loud “Chirp!” to announce that the person called had acknowledged his or her presence out in the other room. I assume that the chirp was issued by a handheld device used by the clerk working the mezzanine.
Three panels were called, but my name was not. Then an hour and a half break for lunch. Most of the crowd left, but I stayed tight and pulled out my sandwich, carrots, grapes and bottles of water.
Thanks to the lovely medications I take, I had to use the rest room several times throughout the day. The first time, I waited as long as I possibly could until finally making a mad dash for the men’s room before my bladder burst. Upon my return, to my surprise, my seat was still vacant. Well, what do you know! And I didn’t even have to yell “spot back!”
The second time I wasn’t so lucky, but managed to find a seat closer to the door and farther away from the squawking Blu-Ray movies.
After lunch, two more panels were called, but still my name was not heard. Finally, about 3 pm, the clerk announced that the courtrooms had confirmed that no more jurors would be needed that day. Those of us remaining would be excused in groups. When our group number was called, we were to report to the window, turn in our badge holders and receive a slip acknowledging our service. Under California’s “one day/one trial” rule, we were reassured that we would not be called again for at least 18 months.
I texted my wife to come retrieve me and went out to sit just inside the front door of the courthouse. It was 105 degrees outside and I did not relish the thought of sitting on a step in the broiling sun while my wife navigated the downtown traffic.
I was a bit disappointed that I was not called to sit on a trial, but also a little relieved. Now I could return to work to prepare for my upcoming trip down south.
But if summoned again in 2019 to do my civic duty, I plan to answer the call and once again show up at the courthouse to sit all day with masses of my fellow Sacramentans. After all, I do appreciate the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, including the guarantee of a trial by a jury of our peers. So, as I see it, it’s the least I can do.