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.


Scott said...


Ernest Hemingway said...

its serious!!!

Clyo said...

The most likely reason most of the other 200 people in the room were not happy about being called for jury duty is because they were not going to be paid by their employers for doing their civic duty.

I was called for jury duty years ago and, although I did not try to get out of it, I was quite relieved to see the case settle before jury selection.

Had that not occurred, I would have been reduced to earning a few dollars a day as opposed to my salary. And that would have been very tough, financially.

For people with families who are not making a lot of money - and typically employers who don't pay a lot to begin with don't pay their employees for jury duty - it's a hardship.

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Marie said...

It's nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks Jury Duty is fun. Plus I love your description of Mira Mesa. I have fond memories of my days living in San Diego and working in Mira Mesa as well as my very first experience with Jury Duty down at the Courthouse. Jury duty up here in NorCal is boring by comparison. I've never had to do more than call in to hear a recording tell me to call back tomorrow.

Alexander, Earl of Lydney said...

I have read all of these in reverse order and I love them, though having met the Emperor of Japan, if I had addressed him as Your Imperial Highness, I might as well have poked him in the eye and kneed him in the groin for all the return invites I would get: Emperors, Empresses, Kings and Queens are all "Majesty" the former pair getting "Imperial" into the bargain. Love your blog though

Navigator said...

I am a scopist, which means my job is to help clean up the court reporter's work, and reading your jury duty posts is both fun and enlightening for me. I often wonder how juries deliberate, because I only get to hear or read whatever goes on in the courtroom, so the deliberation process has always been just a mystery to me.

HereBeDragons said...

I have not yet been to jury duty. I got called for jury duty in Nebraska the day I started my brand, spanking new job here in San Diego. But two years later, I'm called here in San Diego. I go tomorrow. A little excited because it's something new for me. But I will definitely be bringing a book.