Friday, November 12, 2004

Dream of Note

Over the years, through idle conversations and comparing notes with friends and amateur mental therapists, it has been brought to my attention that I have rather unusual dreams. I like this, because I think it means that my subconscious and I get along, and also because it keeps me entertained.

On Wednesday morning my alarm went off. I reflexively slapped the snooze alarm and promptly fell back to sleep, and had the following dream, which is rather short by my standards, but then again my snooze alarm only lasts seven minutes.

I am in a fast food drive thru. The female employee is telling me "All right, here's your order: Two bags of fries. A large Coke. And a watermelon full of spaghetti."

At which point she hands me a watermelon with the top sliced off and the hollowed-out body filled with spaghetti and meatballs.

I don't think I've ever had a proper nightmare, like the kind where you wake up screaming, but I do know that I woke up laughing from this dream.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

California and the Electoral College

I am a Californian and my vote is useless.

The Electoral College renders it useless. On December 13, all 55 of California’s electors will back the winner of the state, regardless of how close the popular vote proves to be on November 2. No matter whom I choose - if the winner wins by a little more or if the runner up loses by a little less - my vote will not influence the outcome of the presidential race. By now we all know who the winner in California will be, but because this is a non-partisan issue let’s not spoil it by naming names.

In the 2000 presidential election 5.9 million Californians voted for the candidate who won the state and 4.6 million voted for the runner up. 4.6 million Californians did not have a single voice among the state’s (then 54) electors. That is equal to the total number of votes cast in Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, South Dakota, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Idaho, New Hampshire and New Mexico combined. If a legislator were to suggest giving away the votes of 12 states they would be branded a tyrant. But that is exactly what the Electoral College does to California every presidential election.

States are free to set their own laws for allocating electoral votes and a possible solution to the winner-takes-all Electoral College already exists. Maine and Nebraska currently use a district system, in which the winner of each congressional district receives an elector’s vote and the overall winner of the state receives two electors’ votes (the votes representing the state’s senators, if you like). In practice, Maine and Nebraska have never split their electoral votes because the overall winner has always swept all two (Maine) or three (Nebraska) congressional districts. This election day Colorado voters will consider an initiative to distribute their electoral votes according to the popular vote.

Fixing the Electoral College piecemeal would only hurt California, however. Splitting California’s electoral votes while other states continue to vote as a block would cripple our influence. If California commits 26 votes to one candidate and 29 to the other, the net impact of California on the election would be only three electoral votes; the same political clout Alaska’s electors have voting as a block. This is a scenario where California only stands to lose by leading by example.

Abandoning the Electoral College entirely would betray one of the great principles of American government – namely the Great Compromise, whereby smaller states are not marginalized with representation proportionate to their smaller populations. Every state gets two senators and at least one representative regardless of their population, and every state likewise gets a minimum of three electoral votes. Ending this important tenet of the Republic would allow the more populous states to completely overshadow their diminutive neighbors in presidential elections; something even the proudest Californian wouldn’t seriously consider.

The only solution for California voters is an amendment to the US constitution that splits every state’s electoral votes. California will continue to have a major impact on the outcome and the millions of Californians who vote against the majority will finally play their part.

Ideally this amendment would follow Colorado’s proposed model and distribute electoral votes according to the popular vote in each state. For if it is unfair to ignore the minority in a state then it stands to reason it is also unfair to ignore the minority of a congressional district. Even a nationally adopted district system based on Nebraska and Maine’s model would be preferable to the current system, however; if enough states insist on this model for a constitutional amendment, perhaps another great compromise may be struck.

Of course there are other important issues being decided in this – and every - election besides the race for president, but it is the big show. Californians aren’t being encouraged to go to the polls when the most important issue on the ballot is a foregone conclusion. There has been much animated discussion over the years over whether media reports of election day results on the east coast discourages voter turnout on the west coast (where the polls close three hours later), but the fact is that Californians have known who is going to win the state ever since the party nominations. That discourages voter turnout.

I am an American and my vote is useless. Doesn’t that bother anyone besides me?

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Jury Duty, Part the Third: Deliberation

Oftentimes people will watch news coverage of trials and react with bewilderment when the defendant is found not guilty. They ask “How could any jury possibly find that person innocent? How stupid can these people be?” When you actually take part in the process you come to realize how complicated finding someone guilty actually is, and you start to understand some of what may have been going on in the deliberations of those newsworthy trials that led the jury not to convict. The fact of the matter is you don’t find someone innocent: you have to find someone guilty, and the rules and procedures for finding someone guilty are very specific and very exacting and if just one thing falls apart or doesn’t fit then the jury has to let them go. Because there are no half measures in a verdict - there is no “Kind of Guilty” - every juror must be absolutely convinced on every single instruction of a count to find the defendant guilty. And that can be amazingly difficult.

Trials are a misleading experience for jurors. Testimony is basically a really long story, broken down into different perspectives of the participants, retold to the jury with all the imperfections typical of human experience – witnesses exaggerate, witnesses interpret events from their own viewpoint, witnesses forget details, and some witnesses flat out lie – and analyzed to death by the attorneys. After listening to all the evidence the jury thinks they have a pretty good idea of what happened; they’ve figured out who they believe, who they think is reliable, and they’ve reconstructed the events in their mind as best they can. They’ve already determined whether they think the defendant did something wrong. But then the judge reads the actual charges to the jury and suddenly it’s like a whole new trial.

Because laws are not written in terms that we apply in our everyday lives. A jury listens to testimony and they hear this story, and they apply their sense of morality to it. They think: “The defendant hit this guy’s car – that’s wrong. I guess we’re going to find him guilty.” But then the judge reads them the charges, and the law has nothing to do with morality: the law is written in terms of legality, which is completely alien to normal human beings. The judge will say: “Charge one states that the defendant did willfully and maliciously strike the alleged victim’s automobile and that the defendant did so with premeditation and that the results of this collision were damages to the alleged victim’s vehicle in excess of $500.”

Now suddenly the jury has to take into consideration concepts like “willful” and “malicious” and “premeditation,” all of which have exacting legal definitions and none of which enter into our day-to-day sense of morality. The jury now thinks: “Well, the defendant hit this guy’s car, but was it willful? Was it premeditated? Obviously he screwed up, but is he guilty of this charge? Why did the prosecution decide to charge him with this crime? Why not some other crime, which doesn’t have such demanding burden of proof? What the hell does ‘malicious’ mean, anyway?”

And so it begins. Doubts begin to gnaw at you, for no other reason than that the judge has specifically put them in your head to see if they take hold. To make sure that you’re absolutely certain.

In our particular case there are four counts: 1) Beating a spouse, 2) Vandalism, 3) Endangering a child and 4) Exhibiting a deadly weapon. By the end of testimony we all have a pretty good idea of what had actually happened and we are all ready to find the defendant guilty of ramming a car into a gate and hitting his wife. But he isn’t charged with Misdemeanor Slapping His Wife While She Was Holding a Baby or Felony Ramming a Gate with a Minivan. We have very specific instructions, and we have to try to fit these events into these laws like some kind of bizarre Chinese wooden puzzle and see if they will actually twist and fit together and become an apple or whatever the puzzle is supposed to make.

After the judge reads us the instructions for each of the four counts, as well as some general rules that courts are so fond of, the alternate juror is sent home and we are shooed off to the deliberations room.

Being an alternate juror is the most thankless job in the world – aside from the $15 a day, that is. They have to struggle to stay awake along with the rest of us through the whole trial, but when it comes time to deliberate the judge sends them home and tells them to wait for a call in case one of us gets sick or gives birth or something. The alternate juror has to endure all the boring parts of the trial without even receiving the common courtesy of finding out how it all turns out. Which is kind of like going to the doctor, being poked and prodded and forced to swallow some horrible remedy, and then never even being told what it was you had.

Once we sit down in the deliberation room I’m the first one to talk, just to get the ball rolling: “Does anybody have their heart set on being foreman?” Apparently this is misconstrued as a desire to be foreman, because a couple of people say “Nope, you can do it.” Either that or I have lost the keeping-quiet-and-not-drawing-attention-to-yourself game by uttering the compound word “foreman.” I start to protest and explain that I was actually going to suggest that we draw numbers out of a hat, but I realize that being foreman figures well in with my master plan of going to lunch tomorrow, so I humbly accept.

Juries are a strange mix of people, because they are by necessity random, so for the most part you are grouped together with people whom you would never normally associate with. Despite this fact, you’ve all been through the same torturous experience and forced to sit in silence for hours on end, much like grade school, so once you’re put in a room together and finally allowed to talk you’re all suddenly best chums.

I’m a staunch advocate of taking the road of least resistance, so I decide to start with count two, which is the felony vandalism charge. The instructions basically say that the defendant has to have willfully caused at least $500 worth of damages. A quick show of hands around the table reveals that we unanimously think he’s guilty. I write “Guilty” in the blank on the form and sign my name above where it says “Foreperson” and just like that this guy is a felon. Wow, I’m a powerful person.

Next we tackle count one: beating a spouse. Here we quickly become fixated on the instruction saying that the alleged victim must have sustained an injury.

Now, this confuses us because the prosecution never made a concerted effort to prove that the wife was injured. He asked several witnesses if they saw the wife wipe herself, and a few of them believe she wiped her arm with a towel. There was the strange business of her bringing up the grill she may or may not have bumped into, but that doesn’t prove anything to us. No paramedics were called to the scene and the female police officer who inspected the wife at the scene did not recall or report any injuries.

So this whole charge falls apart on this one detail. We believe he hit his wife but we have reasonable doubts that this resulted in an injury. On count two I write “Not Guilty.”

It’s now 3:45. We’ve only been deliberating for a quarter of an hour and we’ve already settled half of the counts. I start to feel my lunch plans for tomorrow slipping out of my grasp.

Fortunately count three proves considerably more contentious. We’re not too clear on where the wife and baby was during the car ramming, and whether the baby was in any mortal danger during the physical altercation; that is to say, if this Child was Endangered.

One juror seems to have a biblical fear of alcohol, and she keeps making dire observations like “Oh, but he was drinking. You can’t trust people when they’ve been drinking. They don’t even having any idea what they’re capable of.” I decide not to relate my humorous Car Bomb anecdote from the previous day.

We spend the rest of the day trying to hash out what we think happened, until the bailiff comes and tells us it’s time to quit. One juror looks up in surprise at the time and asks the rest of us if we want to knuckle down for a few minutes and get these last two counts out of the way. As foreman I feel it is my duty to instruct him “No, we can’t rush justice.” Besides, I’m going to lunch tomorrow.

The halls of a courthouse are a strange place, as you can run into anybody from your trial; one of the attorneys, a witness, even the defendant in this case, as he was not in custody. When you bump into them you smile awkwardly and nod, but despite everything the two of you have in common it’s there’s really not a whole lot to say.

There are bright yellow boxes painted on the floor up against the courthouse wall cheerfully advising “KEEP CLEAR AT ALL TIMES.” The purpose for this becomes apparent when a female deputy comes out of a holding area with three young female prisoners, their hair and makeup done up as if they’re headed to yearbook photos instead of court. The deputy escorts them along the wall as they trudge along, shackled together and standing abreast (oh, grow up). At the same time a middle-aged juror is walking towards them in the prisoner-transport lane with his face in a book, oblivious. Suddenly he looks up into the face of the middle prisoner. She smiles at him and he smiles back. The deputy frowns and snaps “Sir, please step out of the way.”

That’s when he notices the bright blue prison jumpsuits and realizes that these girls probably aren’t on their way to some ultra-urban, all-ages club. He scampers out of the way with his head down, although it’s no longer buried in the book.

Our second day of deliberations is still slow going, due to the vagaries of count three. At one point it falls on me to write a note asking the judge for a definition of the word “likely.” Stop laughing at me and let me explain. The instructions specify that the accused must have “created an environment likely to cause death or great bodily injury to the child” in order to find him guilty. Now, everyone agrees that this guy had been acting like an idiot and should not have been kicking his wife and waving a steak knife around while she was holding their son, but we get bogged down on this word “likely.” Some people are of the opinion that “likely” means 99% certain, or a million to one against, and that the law is saying that it was purely a miracle that the child hadn’t been grievously injured. My interpretation is that “likely” simply means that this outcome was more probable than not: i.e. the probability P of baby b being injured by defendant d is greater than 50%. Therefore if P(b) > 50% then d = guilty. Thankfully I do not attempt to write this equation on the white board to demonstrate my position so some of the other jurors actually agree with me.

To try and settle the matter we write to the judge asking if there is a legal definition of the word “likely.” While we wait we hammer out count four (exhibiting a deadly weapon).

The defendant never testified, which - the judge advises us – does not necessarily indicate his guilt. There is a difference, however, between not incriminating yourself and not defending yourself. In the absence of any opposing testimony, we have no reason not to believe the witnesses’ accounts of what happened. We find him guilty of exhibiting a deadly weapon.

Then we wait for the judge’s response and talk amongst ourselves. Then we wait and read the newspaper. Then we wait and wonder how long the definition of a six-letter word could possibly take to write down. Finally, after about an hour, a note comes back from the judge:

“There is no legal definition of the word likely.”

Damn it.

“The standard dictionary definition of the word is ‘to the extent that such an outcome seems reasonable.’”

Damn it. I consider writing to the judge asking for a definition of the word “reasonable” in a bid to stretch jury duty clear through Friday, but the prospect of the rest of the jury accepting this ploy doesn’t seem likely.

In the end those of us holding out on finding him guilty have to admit that we have reasonable doubts that little Baby B was definitely in any physical danger. Count three gets writ “Not Guilty,” for a season average of .500: two counts guilty, two counts not guilty.

We feel kind of bad that we haven’t found him guilty of any of the charges stemming from hitting his wife, but on the other hand we have convicted him of a felony. We brainstorm on the ramifications of this: he has to tell an employer that he is a convicted felon every time he applies for a job; he can never run for office; he can never even vote.

“Look on the bright side,” I reason. “He’ll never be called for jury duty.”

We all laugh conspiratorially.

When the court is ready for us everyone reassembles in the courtroom and I pass the verdicts to the reporter. I’m watching the defendant’s face as the verdicts are ready, but there’s no discernible reaction: no grimaces for the “guiltys,” no relief for the “not guiltys.” I guess after four days of court you don’t have any emotions you haven’t already used.

Having rendered our verdict, we are done. The judge thanks us and dismisses us. We will not be present for sentencing, so we never find out what punishment he receives.

I have lunch with my friend Jeremy, who has just been sworn in to the California Bar Association, making him a Lawyer, and my roommate, the Bailiff. Seeing as how I have recently been a Juror, I have only to invite a Judge to lunch to complete the courthouse collector’s set, but, alas, none are to be found.

Looks like my vacation is over.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Jury Duty, Part the Second: Evidence

On the first day of the actual trial, we are sworn in as jurors and given our instructions for the case. Then someone points out that the court reporter isn’t here yet, so we have to wait for him to show up and then we do it all over again.

Our lawyers are Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Kennedy, which confuses me for a moment and makes me think I’m watching really old reruns of C-SPAN.

Our trial is about domestic violence involving a Hispanic man and his wife. I look around the jury and realize that the lawyers have dismissed all the potential jurors with Spanish last names. Well, the joke’s on them: My family was in Spain until the 16th century when my ancestor washed ashore in Scotland amidst the wreckage of the Spanish armada and cunningly changed his last name to blend in. His ignorance of English apparently went unnoticed, seeing as how the Scottish can barely speak it anyway. 400 years later his visionary act of subterfuge is still serving me well.

The prosecuting attorney describes the incident the trial has stemmed from thusly: the defendant came home to his apartment late one Sunday, and his wife refused to let him through the security gate because he had been out drinking with his friends instead of spending the day with her and their children. They argue loudly through the security gate while she holds their baby son, then he gets into his van and rams the gate until the door pops open. He exits the van with a steak knife in hand, walks up to his wife and yells at her while waving the steak knife about, then kicks and slaps her, all while she is holding their son. People in the complex start yelling that they have called the police, so he gets back in his van and drives away, stopping to brandish the steak knife at another resident who is in his own car and impertinently inquires of him what, if anything, he might be looking at. Then the cops arrive on the scene and take him into custody.

The defense attorney’s rebuttal goes a little something like this: sure they had an argument, but what couple doesn’t fight? Sure he hit the gate, but it wasn’t that bad. Steak knife? What steak knife?

At this point I’m starting to think that this guy is a public defender.

All of the witnesses are called by the prosecution, and serve to flesh out each step of the episode. However, because several of the witnesses are the defendant’s family, the prosecutor warns us not to expect them to be entirely forthcoming. In particular the defendant’s wife, the alleged victim, is one of the witnesses, and the prosecutor concedes that he has no idea what she will say once she’s on the stand, but believes that she will lie to try to protect him.

Because many of the witnesses speak Spanish, often times there is a court-supplied interpreter standing beside the witness stand. Although this means questioning and answering takes twice as long, I don’t mind, because this is only prolonging my vacation. It’s not even that distracting because the interpreter is really good and mimics the witnesses’ inflections and tone as well as their words, even going so far as to get annoyed with the lawyers when the witnesses do.

On a few occasions the prosecution asks the defendant’s niece a question and she answers him in English without waiting for the translation, causing the judge to reprimand her and insist that she wait for the interpreter. The ostensible reason for this is that the court has to make sure that everyone has a perfect understanding of what is going on, and if a participant says Spanish is their primary language, they’re damned well going to speak Spanish. You have to follow certain rules in a court, because that’s what courts are for.

The defendant’s niece and nephew pretty much live up to the prosecutor’s warnings, and all they tell us is that they heard some yelling, then what sounded like a car crash, but they didn’t really see anything.

I meet my friend Bert for lunch and he complains about how his work ruined a perfectly good morning of sleeping through his alarm by calling him up and informing him that all their servers were down and they were losing thousands of dollars every minute he wasn’t in the office. I in turn extol the virtues of the jury system and show off the two free trolley passes I have collected today.

If you frequent airports often enough eventually you figure out which articles of clothing will set off the metal detector and which are safe. Being on jury duty is like going through an airport twice a day, every day. My Skechers are not metal detector safe, but my Vans are. My heavy leather belt does not pass, but my cheap cloth belt with the flimsy aluminum buckle does. Juror badges have metal pins with sharp pointy ends and go through the scanner without anyone batting an eye, but apparently they trust jurors not to go around stabbing each other.

After lunch the witnesses are residents of the apartment complex and apparently have very good optometrists because they saw a whole lot more than the defendant’s relatives. Then the man the defendant allegedly threatened with the knife takes the stand.

When the clerk asks the witness to raise his right hand to be sworn in (by way of an interpreter, as the court has informed him that he will be speaking Spanish today) he raises his left briefly before being corrected. The prosecution questions him briefly and he corroborates the prosecution’s description of what happened – he was in his car and defendant drove up alongside him and waved a knife at him and yelled at him. The defense starts questioning him about what he saw of the argument. Thus begins what we in the jury will come to refer to as The Business with the Right and the Left.

“He slapped at her with his right hand.” And what side was the baby on? “She was holding her on the left.” So the baby was never in trouble of being hit. “Well, it looked like he just barely missed the baby.” But you said the baby was on the opposite side from the hand he was using to slap her. “No, I said he swung with his right and the baby was on the left.” Those are opposite sides. “No, because if I’m facing you with my right, your left is on the same side. The baby was on her left side.” So what hand was he holding the knife in? “His right.” The same hand he was slapping her with? “No, sorry, I’m confused. He was holding the knife in his left.” But you just said the right. “I also just said I was confused.” You said he tried to kick her? “Yes, with his right leg.” What was his left leg doing? “Obviously it was staying on the ground, otherwise he would have fallen over.” And he kicked her on the right side? “Yes the right.” So he somehow magically stretched his leg all the way around her and kicked her other side? “No, the right side as I’m facing her, it would be her left side.”

This goes on for an HOUR. All the while the interpreter is translating back and forth, so I keep hearing echoes of Derecha? Izquierdo? Derecha? Izquierdo? The witness is becoming hostile, as is the jury, as we don’t see what this accomplishing other than lulling us to sleep. Finally the defense asks the prosecutor if he will help act out the scene with the defense attorney. The prosecutor looks bewildered at this request for a second, then decides that it beats sitting and listening to this for another hour and stands up. The defense attorney plays the part of the wife and has the witness direct the prosecuting attorney, who is playing the part of the husband, where to stand in relation to her (him).

The witness says, “Yes, just like that, then he kicked her.”

The prosecutor cocks an eyebrow and asks the defense, “Would you like me to demonstrate that too?”

After court my roommate and I are hanging out in the lobby. He’s wearing his sheriff’s uniform and I still have my juror’s badge and we’re discussing our shopping list for the evening, which consists of Guinness, whiskey and Irish cream to mix Car Bombs. Another sheriff walks by in the middle of this and gapes at my juror’s badge. Then she asks “Are you taking your jury drinking?” and he says “No, no, he’s not on my jury” so no one gets fired and I don’t get dismissed.

Many people, regardless of their travels, may have at least a passing familiarity with San Diego because of its appearance in the movie Traffic. In the film the police drive a protected witness from the Hotel San Diego to court. This is hilarious to natives because the Hotel San Diego is literally across the street from the courthouse. When the film crew was shooting exterior shots of the hotel they probably had to stand on the courthouse steps to get the whole building in frame. Despite this one questionable interpretation of topography, Traffic is fun to watch for San Diegans because it brilliantly caricaturizes the stereotypes of various neighborhoods: the posh drug lords live in La Jolla, Chula Vista is nothing but a stretch of freeways and storage sheds, and the federales kidnap the assassin Frankie Flowers in a gay bar in Hillcrest.

This is a welcome contrast to that atrocity of a movie Jurassic Park 2, which has a Tyrannosaurus Rex rampaging through San Diego. Which is not to say that stuff like this doesn’t happen in San Diego; it’s just that we don’t like to talk about it.

Wednesday’s witnesses include a contractor - who estimates the damages to the security gate at around $2,000; the police officers who arrived on the scene - who relate the (much more thorough) statements the defendant’s relatives gave at the scene; and … the defendant’s wife.

Much as the prosecutor predicted, the wife is not very chatty: “We argued, he bumped the gate with the car, I went inside.

“That’s all.” Did he have a knife? “No, there was no knife.” Did he hit you? “No he was just waving his hands around.” Were you injured at all? “No, if I got bumped at all, there was a barbecue, maybe I backed into the grill.” Why are you bringing up the grill? “No reason. I wasn’t injured.”

She cries a lot, and I feel a bit awkward, sitting here judging people for $15 a day, trying to read through their tears, which are honest enough, and discern the motive behind them. There is no interpreter to translate what the witnesses are thinking.

Then, suddenly and without warning, the prosecution rests and testimony is over. I don’t understand what’s happening and become a little bit panicky. It’s only 3 o’clock on Wednesday, I’ve already made plans to meet my friend Jeremy for lunch tomorrow and they’re trying to end the trial? What kind of horrible miscarriage of justice is this, anyway?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Jury Duty, Part the First: Selection

I am sitting on the couch one Saturday minding my own business when suddenly my roommate, with no provocation whatsoever, laughs at me and hands me my mail: “Ha ha, you got a jury summons.” So I pump my fist in the air and cry “Yes! Jury duty!”

My friend Shane misinterprets my heartfelt enthusiasm for sarcasm – this is the price I pay for being hilarious most of the time. So he asks “How are you planning on getting out of it?”

To which I reply “Are you crazy? Why would I want to sneak out of a paid vacation?”

Now a brief geography lesson for those of you who are unfamiliar with San Diego. San Diego is built on the “Los Angeles Model,” which is to say that the municipal corporation snatched up as much land as it could get its grubby little hands on in order to secure coastlines, water supplies, farmland and vast expanses of barren wastelands for landfills and golf courses. The net result of this is that the City of San Diego is a massive, far-flung affair with various organs and appendages splattered across the entire county. This is a great boon to city planners and automobile salesmen, and a great pain in the ass for the rest of us who actually have to drive around it.

I don’t want to go into excruciating sociological and historical detail about the various neighborhoods of San Diego, so instead I shall pretend that I am a child and that San Diego is an amusement park. UTC, which is where I work, is filled with high-tech, biotech and corporate offices, along with the shopping centers and food courts that prey on them. If you were to find UTC on the pocket map of the amusement park that they hand you at the gate, you would find it labeled “Park Operations - Employees Only.” Mira Mesa, which is where I live, is far to the north and east, filled with supermarkets and houses, and boring. This would be marked “The Parking Lot.” Downtown San Diego, which is where the courthouse, bars, clubs, and good restaurants are located, would be labeled “Super Happy Fun Land.”

Other salient facts at this point are as such: 1) jury duty in San Diego County pays $15 a day 2) my work pays employees while they’re on jury duty 3) my roommate just happens to be a bailiff at the courthouse and 4) courts generally recess at 11:30 am and resume at 1:30 pm. So, to summarize: the County of San Diego is offering me a $15-a-day raise to let my room mate drive me to Super Happy Fun Land and take two-hour lunch breaks. Yes! Jury duty!

This is the third time I’ve heard the call of the jury. The first time I sat in the lounge all day and my name was never called. The second time I sat on a legal malpractice trial, which meant that there were far more lawyers in the courtroom than is generally considered healthy, but that only lasted one day and I felt somewhat cheated. This time I hope the justice system has something more substantial in store for me.

The time of my summons rolls around and I bum a ride with my sheriff roommate to downtown San Diego. I shuffle through the metal detectors into the courthouse with about 200 other potential jurors, who look as if they are being processed for a prison camp. For some reason very few of them are as happy about this whole thing as I am, and my cheerful whistling garners a few threatening glares.

All of the potential jurors receive a little motivational speech and instructions from the jury services manager, our warden. This is the third time I have heard the motivational speech, which is supposed to be humorous but gets increasingly less so each time you hear it. I am not about to let a little thing like that dampen my spirits, however.

The gist of the instructions is this: sit in this room until your name is called and we tell you what courtroom to go to. In time my name is called, and I wander off to find my appointed courtroom with about 30 other names. We are seated and the lawyers begin eyeing us critically, sizing us up like buyers perusing bewildered calves at a county fair.

Lawyers are the scum of the Earth, an accusation I make based on this observation: in every single jury pool I have sat in, the lawyers have unerringly dismissed all of the attractive young women.

On the first jury I sat on the judge interviewed the potential jurors to assist the attorneys in deciding whom to excuse. He asked juror number one what she did for a living and she replied, “I’m an exotic dancer.”

The judge asked “Excuse me?” because he had not understood her. She hesitated a second, then replied “I’m a stripper.” To which the judge responded “Oh. OH.” Then to the court reporter: “You can strike that from the record, I don’t want to sound like an idiot.”

The prosecuting attorney proceeded to dismiss potential juror number one, eliciting baleful glares from every male member of the jury and ingeniously dooming his case to failure.

This stint on jury duty does nothing to improve my relations with the legal profession. The attorneys promptly dismiss all the cute girls and then settle down to weed out the rest of us.

I took four quarters of Latin in college and so I know a little about the vocative case, which is the form of a person’s name used when you’re addressing them. The Romans called themselves crazy things like Gallius and Marcus so that you could actually conjugate their names into Galli, Marce and so forth. This would be tantamount to English allowing you to create words like Brented, Brenting and Brently – as in “he Brently went on at great length about the subject” – because English doesn’t brook the conjugation of nouns.

A consequence of my tentative knowledge of the vocative case is that I know you do not use the vocative case when speaking to certain people. Case in point, you are supposed to address judges as “Your Honor,” because you’re not talking directly to them, you’re actually addressing their office. I have never met a Duke or an Earl or an Emperor, so I have never found occasion to say “Your Grace” or “Your Lordship” or “Your Imperial Highness,” but I do make a point to address the judge as “Your Honor.”

The other members of the jury do not know Latin and as such most of them address the judge as “Sir,” which is ridiculous, because there is no nobility in the US and there is no possible way that he could be a knight. The judge is a good sport, though, and doesn’t correct them. I suppose the dearth of Latin in this country means that such formalities don’t get much practice – that and the utter lack of Dukes, Earls and Emperors.

Some people are cursed (or blessed, depending on their point of view) never to serve as a juror. People who have been to law school, law enforcement agents and people with “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” tattooed on their forearms generally get dismissed quickly. One potential juror in our pool works for the FBI, though not as an agent, as she makes pains to explain. The defense asks her “Ma’am, let me ask you one question: If you were a defense attorney, would you let someone who had worked for the FBI for 30 years sit on your jury?” and she smiles and says “No” and he smiles and dismisses her.

Other people view jury duty as a sort of unnecessary surgery and do their best to weasel out of it. Another potential juror says that he knows many law enforcement professionals and is very close with them. The judge asks him if he can set aside these relationships and weigh the testimony of any police officers with no more bias than any other witnesses. This is a routine question, to which you are supposed to nod solemnly and say, “Yes, Your Honor, I see no reason why I cannot be impartial in this case.” Instead, this potential juror sighs rather (melo)dramatically, and sits quietly for a few beats, as if in thought. In truth what he is thinking is “Ah ha! A way to weasel out of jury duty.” The rest of us in the jury pool fidget awkwardly, not because of the lie that we all know is coming, but because there is nothing quite so discomforting as bad acting. What he finally says is “I don’t think I can do that,” to which the judge replies “Well then, I think I’m going to have to dismiss you.” We all roll our eyes, but judges have certain standards of dignity that they must uphold so he has to keep a straight face.

I have been told on several occasions by various people with expertise in legal matters that no attorney in their right mind would want me sitting on a jury. Their reasoning for this is that I have a college degree, I am intelligent (their words, not mine) and I occasionally converse with various lawyers and law enforcement officers who have corrupted my mind with thoughts of a legal nature. Despite this impeccable reasoning, I have never been dismissed, so obviously someone somewhere is screwing something up.

It does get hairy for a while, however. Some time after my two-hour lunch I am asked if I know any law enforcement officers and I say “Yes, my roommate is a bailiff two doors down,” and suddenly everybody looks at me, except for our bailiff, who is doing some simple arithmetic in his head and consulting a mental directory of his coworkers. But the prosecutor just asks me if my roommate has ever shared any embarrassing courtroom stories about him and I say “No, not yet” and the defense asks me the routine question and I nod solemnly and say “I see no reason why I cannot be impartial in this case.”

My workday ends around 4 o’clock and I have an hour to bump around downtown before my ride is ready. The sun is shining and I’ve got it made: I’m a juror.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

This is my blog. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

Now maybe Scott will stop pestering me.