Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Jury Duty

Nothing strikes more fear into the hearts of the citizenry than the appearance of an official "jury summons" in the day's mail. The citizen sees herself being herded like cattle, subjected to hours of boredom punctuated by silly questions designed to elicit "bias" with respect to the parties in the action. For those of us who have somehow earned the enmity of either the prosecution or the defense in particular actions, it's a long, slow slog to being "thanked and excused." Prosecutors don't want me on murder cases or three-strikes cases, but defendants don't want me on child molestation or rape cases. I don't know who wouldn't want me on a fraud case, but I may, some day, find out.

The very first time I was called for jury duty, I spent an entire day in San Francisco's Jury Assembly Room, and read an entire book. I was lucky--in those days you could be forced to come every day for an entire week. When the citizenry began rebelling by not showing up, California switched to the "one day, one trial" system, which at least limited the amount of time people could be kept waiting.

But that doesn't mean that you're free after one day because you can be part of a jury panel suffering voir dire, which always seems to go on forever. And the questions! I mean, how many people in this day and age are going to say, in a room full of strangers, that they're biased against African-Americans or police officers or whatever. It reminds me of the days when airline ticket agents used to ask if I'd had my eye on my luggage since I packed it. Well, I suppose my cat could have planted a toy in my suitcase while I wasn't looking.

Judges have taken over voir dire, as the process had become so involved that questioning the jurors took days. (I remember once being asked what magazines I read. I tried to provide a comprehensive list, wondering all the time if I'd be convicted of perjury if I forgot one.) This time, the questions for a murder case were only one page. Do not believe, however, that this is for the convenience of the jurors. It isn't. It's to keep the judge from falling asleep.

And some of the questions! The defense attorney in my most recent brush with the legal system asked if I "was acquainted" with neighborhoods like Oak Park and Del Paso Heights (two of the more perceived high-crime areas in Sacramento). I asked what was meant by "acquainted", as it could mean whether or not I had lived there, or whether I'd read about them in the newspaper. Amazingly, once the defense attorney clarified the issue, the majority of the panel indicated no knowledge of these neighborhoods. Do they not read the newspaper? Or (perhaps, especially) watch television news?

Then there are the hardship applications. Because those aren't handled administratively, people with problems can't be excused without being interviewed by the Court. This means that several hours are taken up with these applications. I think that about a third of my panel was excused for hardship. More time was taken up questioning jurors who didn't want to discuss their answers to voir dire in public. (I'm a lot more sympathetic to this, as one of the questions was whether the prospective juror had been the victim of a crime. Many people might not want to discuss these in front of a room full of strangers.) What all this meant, though, was that most of the jury panel had a three-hour break, long enough for a French-style lunch.

What makes this waiting possible is that jurors don't get compensated for their time. If, for instance, courts had to pay jurors the median wage, the courts would have long since figured out a more efficient process. Jurors wouldn't be called in until needed, and they'd develop a process for weeding out those who couldn't serve without having a lot of expensive people waiting around. Couldn't the panel fill out the voir dire questionnaire online or by mail? This would enable those who couldn't serve to present their case without having to show up at all, and enable people with privacy concerns to discuss their situation without taking up hours that the vast majority could be spending on the sofa with bon bons. If you pay me nothing, it's easy to make my civic duty an onerous burden; if you have to pay me $20 an hour, you're going to come up with a more efficient system.

What's most noticeable, though, is that judges have become much better behaved. It used to be that judges would ream out the prospective jurors, particularly those they didn't like. I once had a right-winger try it on me, but I'm a big girl and can take care of myself. But I once was on a panel where the judge's behavior toward another juror was so appalling that I very nearly wrote a letter to the Presiding Judge complaining about the judge's conduct. (While the prospective juror was not the brightest penny on the block and was making a dumb argument, nearly reducing her to tears was thoroughly inappropriate.)

In my recent service, I was pretty sure that the judge didn't like me one bit and, had he been the prosecutor--he was a former prosecutor--would have bounced me from the jury in a New York minute, he managed not to sneer at me. (He'd heard of the organization I used to work for and managed not to refer to it as a bunch of "lefties.") More impressive, however, was the way he used the voir dire to insure that the prospective jurors were capable of sitting in judgment in a murder case. I don't know what he would have done if he found someone who wasn't capable of understanding the issues and instructions, but he made eliciting the information painless.

But jury duty is still a complete waste of my time. Either the prosecution or the defense will bounce me. I just wish they'd figure out a way to do it faster.

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