Civics 101

January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

Outside the downtown criminal courts building in the early morning, an observer would be forgiven for thinking that the stream of 150 or so glum-looking adults reluctantly heading into the building were defendants arriving for sentencing.

Follow these same folks through security and up the elevator, however, and you’d land on the 11th floor, their destination being the northeast corner suite of the Juror Service Division of the California Superior Court. They are not the ones being judged; they are the judgers.

I joined this parade the fourth week of December. summons

Receiving a jury summons in the mail will cramp the stomach of even the most civic minded citizen. Suddenly, your future is one big question mark. Every appointment you agree to is prefaced with, “If I’m not on jury duty.”

The court has at least made things as convenient as possible. Registration and the 90 minute orientation can be completed online, resulting in a midmorning start time. You may not have to show up at all: You call their automated service every evening to see if they need you the next day. If you’re  called in but are not empaneled by the end of your day, you’re excused for another 12 months.

At the same time, the courts have made it more difficult NOT to serve. Not so long ago, you could return your summons with an excuse for not serving: I’m a teacher, I’m a student, my employer doesn’t pay me when I’m on a jury, etc. These days, unless you’re physically unable, don’t speak English, or on active duty military, you’ve got to show up. Once there, if empaneled—called to a courtroom with 20 to 40 others to be questioned about your fitness to serve as a juror for a specific case—you have to make your case for being excused in person.

I heard more than a few people grumbling about missing a day of school or work when they would most likely be excused from service by the judge. And yet, how else to ensure an accused person’s constitutional right (Article III, Sec. 2, Para. 3) to trial by jury?

I’ve responded four times to a jury summons and served on a jury once. I found it one of the most engaging and meaningful experiences of my life, and not just because we put a serial rapist back into custody where he could do no more harm (to women, anyway). I felt I was doing something vital. Our work really mattered to the defendant and his accuser.

badge We’ve all watched courtroom dramas on TV or the big screen. Who could forget the tension and dynamism of Twelve Angry Men? The action in real courtrooms, however, is both more dramatic and more mundane. Judges, defendants, attorneys and prosecutors all have their strengths and quirks that they enact right in front of you. There’s also the real-time boredom of waiting for lawyers and judge to settle procedural matters that arise.

Jury service is also quintessentially American. On one occasion when I was empaneled but ultimately not required to serve, the judge spent what I felt was an inordinate amount of time explaining our judicial system and the function of juries. Boring. Then I took a good look at the people gathered in the courtroom. Possibly half had not been born in the United States. Jury summonses go out to citizens in all sorts of occupations and with varying levels of education. So, yeah, the judge had to inoculate people with a dose of Civics 101.

The week before Christmas, I didn’t get as far as a courtroom, which was fortunate because the only group empaneled that day was for a four-week trial beginning in mid-January. As meaningful as I’ve found jury experience, four weeks of sitting in a windowless courtroom is more civic service than I’m prepared for.

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