Jury Duty With Blue Eyes, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:46am

View from the Courthouse

Have you ever done jury duty? Or at least been summoned for the possibility?

I spent a couple of days this week at our county courthouse. Here’s how jury selection works, at least in Northern California.

  1. You receive a notice in the mail: “Call on this date to find if you have to come to the courthouse for possible service.” You do so, along with unknown numbers of other people. You may get excused.
  2. If you are called, you show up at the courthouse in the morning, along with 200 other people, and wait to see if you’ll be needed. You may get excused.
  3. If you are called, you go into a courtroom, with 30 other people. Jury selection begins, in which the attorneys attempt to seat a panel of 12 jurors, via the process known as voir dire. Attorneys question potential jurors to determine whether to excuse the candidates for cause, use a peremptory challenge, or accept them onto the jury. You may get excused.

For anyone with a Saturday in May waiting outside your door, we’ll cut to the chase. I was challenged, and excused.

But not without some observations.

Courthouses Are The Great Equalizer

The last time I had been in a courthouse was during my divorce proceedings. Oh how painful that was. And how little privilege mattered. We are all bare in the courthouse, accused, dissolving, petitioning for succor. Paint scuffs don’t discriminate.

People Do Their Jobs With Enthusiasm, Sometimes Too Much

Despite the, how else can I put this, human suffering that they witness, courthouse employees in my neck of their woods seem to like their jobs. The security guard bellowed happily, “Belts off! Cellphones, bags, keys, off!” The cafe cook made me an omelet with ripe avocado, even though breakfast was done. The clerk who spoke to the ~200 assembled in the basement juror room chattered like a late night TV host. In fact, she was so enthusiastic that I wanted to tell her to substitute speed for pep. But I didn’t.

People Are Unnecessarily Rude

Another woman did. Spoke up right in the middle of our clerk’s speech and said, “PLEASE! Can you just call upstairs and find out if we are needed? THEN you can chat with everyone?? I understood her impulse but not the action. The world is uncivil often enough for good reason. What harm did the extra 15 minutes do if it allowed someone to enjoy their life’s work? Not to get all self-righteous, but surely the system of justice warrants patience?

Many People Don’t Speak English In America

I also noticed how many people who are citizens of America can’t speak English well enough to participate in our civic rites. I am not of the belief that people should be forced to learn their host country’s language, or that said countries should stop supporting diverse immigrant populations. But I find it hard to imagine how it must feel, living in a country where you can’t understand the president, the police, or even many of the songs. I think it’s both the strength and weakness of America that singular cultures can persist in isolation.

I also wonder how people parent when their children speak a different language, hear a different narrative altogether? How do they explain the rules? The context? Maybe in my next life I will find out.

The Value Of Unplugging

Cellphones didn’t work in the basement where we waited to be called for potential service. I had to sit, and listen. And look around. I believe the Internet is largely a force for good, and in any case there is no turning back, but never underestimate the value of living in your body and perceiving the immediate and precious world. Noticing context.

The Curse And Blessing Of An Internal Monologue

In the end, though, I think for most of us the internal monologue remains our most compelling experience. Certainly it’s true for me. Because it’s so delicious, we have to try our absolute hardest to hear it clearly. Hard to distance yourself from yourself, but necessary sometimes. Often in the same moment when you have to be most present.

I was in the second round of those chosen for voir dire. So during the first round I listened to the attorney questions and thought about what I’d say if questioned. Good thing I don’t yet talk to myself out loud. Warning, middle-aged lady muttering to herself in the courtroom!

Then they called me up.

I could tell that the case centered around police rough-handling, and whether it had been required or gratuitous. The defendant, Hispanic, was accused of resisting police. The voir dire sought to determine our bias for or against law enforcement, and by implication our beliefs about de facto racisim in America. I could see that it was going to come down to whether you believed the policeman or the guy, sitting with his balding head and anxious eyes, at the table.

Asked repeatedly, by both sides, whether I could judge impartially, I said “Yes.” The prosecution excused me anyway.

Our System Is Not Half Bad

The prosecution was probably right. While I am one of the most logical people I know, what logic reveals is that decisions often have to be made on feelings. Had the logic, the evidence, made a clear case one way or the other I would have been able to put my biases aside. Would have had to, it’s the law.

But without a clear answer, in a case of He Said He Said,  I’d have advocated for the decision that caused the least harm. And I believe the defendant would have suffered most from a faulty decision. Good job, Mademoiselle Prosecutor.

Blue And Red

To me that’s the core of our current uncivil politics. I believe America is so stubbornly split into Red and Blue because there’s no clear answer to most of our large questions. Without clear answer, we fall back on feelings. Some of us feel that the greatest societal risk is Harm to The Weak, some of us fear Harm from The Other.

I’m a big fan of the American justice system in general. And yet, as all systems do, it will fail and we’ll revert to our internal monologues. Which is why we hope people pay attention to their immediate precious world, and with any luck, do their jobs with enthusiasm. Job in the broad sense. All the way to civic if we can.

I wonder how it turned out.

Have a good weekend.


Above, a view from the 8th floor of the courthouse, and my fingers. The personal superimposed on the broad, in case I have been at all obscure so far.

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  • Yes, I’ve been called for jury duty–many times over the years. And, in those years (mostly in the large city of Dallas), I’ve seen clearly the demographic changes we often read about. Yes, the changes have happened.

    I’ve only served on one jury. Usually, I am excused after questioning. The first question I’m ALWAYS asked is “What type of law does your husband practice.” Of course they know he is a lawyer because spousal occupation is asked on the forms filled out. I tell them, grudgingly. Not ONCE have I been asked a question about myself. The one time I was asked to serve, the question had been asked, but I guess they decided that a woman married to a lawyer might be a decent juror afterall. I enjoyed serving–and yes, we have a great system of justice in our country.

  • You’re probably too smart to be on that jury. I’m sure they figured that out after you answered the first question.

    Is that a terrible thing to say? Sorry if it is. They need you on a complicated case.

  • I got called for jury duty a few times in college & my mother told them I was away and could not serve. I got called to serve a few months ago in a state I have not lived in for nearly 10 years.

    I so badly want to do my civic duty! I live in DC where word on the street is one gets called every 2 years like clockwork. I have not been called. I wish I could call the jury duty people up and say, hey I’m ready to serve!

    7:27 am
    Lisa said...

    Yes, I would have LOVED to have served during the time I was retired:).

  • I served a few months ago on a three day trial (plus two days of jury selection..) very similar to the case you described. It was my second time to serve on a jury. Both times my faith was renewed in the justice system and, through the fine, diverse, conscientious groups of jurors with whom I served, my fellow citizens.

    7:28 am
    Lisa said...

    Ah. Good to hear.

  • As someone who has selected jurors (although only in civil cases), as I read your description of the case I thought you must have been excused by the prosecution. Glad to see that I called it correctly. And in case you’re wondering, she likely excused you not only because she thought you would be sympathetic to the defendant, but also because you would likely be a leader and convince other jurors of your point of view.

  • I’ve only served on a jury once many years ago in Philadelphia. It was an eye-opening experience for a former political science major. Few of us with ANY degree of privilege really, viscerally understand the experience of people who have no privilege/no advantage in this country. Extended jury service is one way to begin to understand what it’s like in the real world.

  • I served two years ago. It was an interesting experience. The defendant wanted to defend himself on a drug charge. Before the voir dire, there was a hub-bub at the front. The jury was told about it after the judgement was finished and the judge was thanking the jury. The judge and the pro bono attorney for this man begged him not to defend himself. It did not end well. I came away with two main observations–never defend yourself and (overall) the police have a tough job and do it well.

  • I have only once been called to jury duty. Much of my experience was like yours. The case that I was part of voir dire had to do with a difference of opinion between a psychiatrist and a former client. I know that the question that eliminated me had to do with the presence of alcoholism in my extended circle of friends. I’m fairly certain that the other 40 in the pool lied…or had looser definitions of alcoholism than I did.

    I did enjoy the 2.5 days of people watching.

  • By coincidence, I too was called to jury duty this week. I’ve been called before but this was the first time I was ever picked to actually sit on the jury. The case was a he said/she said with the accuser being a 14 yo female. The intelligent, polite and well thought out arguments made in the jury room were a pleasant surprise. It took an hour to unanimously agree. Happy yo report that it was a
    n all around positive experience.

  • I think lawyers selecting jurors go for a low common denominator – high WASPs upset the plan of either side. It’s too bad, but probably you didn’t qualify as a peer. Plus you’ve recently been the victim of a crime.

    7:29 am
    Lisa said...

    I wonder. I didn’t tell them about the crime. But I certainly used more than my fair share of complex sentences:).

  • I’ve yet to make it to the voir dire stage. And yes, your point well taken about the English language issue – bulletins from my child’s public elementary school were printed in multiple languages …

  • Although I’ve picked many a jury, I had never been called for jury duty until last year. Quite an enlightening experience to be on the other side of the bar. An invaluable exercise for anyone who works in the judicial system.

    Very interesting that you were excused by the prosecutor. A white, middle aged, attractive, well-educated, and highly skilled professional would be my pick in a case of alleged police mishandling.

    Except in California, where it can be assumed that you would be too liberal.


    7:30 am
    Lisa said...

    Thanks for your perspective, oh lawyer one! I think it was the way I answered questions, i.e. I insisted that they clarify everything they asked me. That leads me to suspect that a highly logical approach was going to support the defendent.

  • I served on a jury for the first time a couple of years ago. What an eye-opening experience. I was very proud that all of us jurors took the case very seriously. The judge came in afterwards to explain some of the things that happened during the trial and answer questions. I found that very interesting and helpful to my understanding of the legal process.

  • I’ve been called for jury duty many times, but never selected. Once I was 15th in line, and was questioned about myself and my views, but they only wanted 13 (12 plus an extra). I would only have been selected if enough people ahead of me were knocked out.

    You didn’t mention being paid. Once I got $6 and then needed to pay for parking – $9!

    Where we live now, they ask people if they want to donate their pay to a charity for children in foster care. Those little bits do add up.

    7:31 am
    Lisa said...

    Parking was free. Had I served, I’d have been paid $15/day.

  • Very interesting post. We have a different legal system in Germany without jurors. I personally find it very difficult to judge impartially. My respect goes to you on this task.

    Lady of Style

  • Our law system differs from that of USA – naturally.

    The council of the certain district chooses the jurors for a period of 4 years.
    The juror must be a citizen of Finland aged 25-63.
    Usually there are three jurors, who get to say their own opinion. This applies to the principal trial courts.
    So no, I have never been called to serve as a juror, as I don´t take part in politics in any way.

  • Our system is similar to your’s,we get called to a pool of people, following been questioned by a judge and legal advisers 12 jurors are chosen.
    I have never been called to serve.

    7:32 am
    Lisa said...

    I believe we based our system on yours!

  • Here in Florida we get to cool our “justice warrants patience” heels even longer. After various lines have been stood in/passed through, papers checked, checks to see if the “no capri pants” dress code is being fudged or not, more checking, roll calling, clerks standing around in pairs, they turn the lot of us down the hall and into a theatre of sorts where we are again seated so we may view a 30 minute film on the privilege of being a juror, lots of patriotic this and that about the State of Florida, lights on, more pairs of clerks abuzz, everyone back up and down the hall again, reseated, in comes the judge to reinforce the message behind the film. A very long morning and we haven’t even gotten to meat of the day.

    I have a very rich interior monologue as well! I couldn’t survive without it/her, we are very good friends, myself and I. But even with both of our heads put together, we’re hung up on “I’d have advocated for the decision that caused the least harm.” Yes, we’re lacking testimony and context for the crime, but quantifying the measure of harm [suffered by or done to] into most and least for purposes of reward or punishment is a dimension of jury service I’ve never thought about before.

    But your Saturday morning essays always make us scratch our heads into the following week, so thank you for yet another ganglia + synapse workout, whew!

  • There is no clear answer, but there is each juror’s effort to hear and apply logic and best effort toward a fair decision, and I believe you would have contributed wholly.

    Thank you for not doing whatever to wriggle out of jury duty, like some of my colleagues who believe their work is more important than (very occasionally) performing one of the prime responsibilities of citizenship. Others who have served describe it as a powerful, even life-changing experience.

    Jury duty is one of the rare cases when we show up as a citizen, rather than a taxpayer.

    7:32 am
    Lisa said...

    “As a citizen, rather than a taxpayer.” And there you have it.

  • I have spent a lot of time in Philadelphia court rooms as a witness, a victim, and a juror. What I am struck by every time is how much money and class sway justice.
    The quality of your lawyer, the jury’s preconception of you, and the way the staff treat you as you file into the room, all depends on class/wealth.
    Those without suffer most.

    5:44 pm
    Flo said...

    “What I am struck by every time is how much money and class sway justice.”

    “Money” and “class” are not interchangeable. Money has a long record for being outwardly conspicuous, class on the other hand has an even longer record for priding itself on being tastefully invisible. Case in point: Martha Stewart goes to court….

    Every day of her criminal trial she loudly arrived via stretch limo wearing her cashmere capes, parading her extremely high dollar attorney Mr. Morvillo, and prominently carrying her $20+K vintage Hermes bag. They polled the jury after the Guilty verdict: the group was unanimously offended by her high-handed better-than presentation. This illustration defines the difference between “money” and “class.”

    The appearance of “money” is so easily bought and paid for these days. Easily. If not via retail, then via thrift [see An Affordable Wardrobe blogspot]. Even so, your “those without [money] suffer most” is obviously true. But if that’s all you’ve got, and you’re putting all your weight on that statement, then you’ll have to figure out what to do with all the other holes in your thesis.

    7:36 am
    Lisa said...

    It was interesting. I did not see that here, except that the prosecutor was young, ambitious, and well-dressed, the defense attorney less well pulled-together. The defendant himself was accorded as much respect as the police officer. I was heartened.

  • I love the way your mind works Lisa. I have gotten out of jury duty because of work every time I’ve been summoned. I had to go to court last year though and as you mention, it’s truly the great equalizer where everyone’s behavior feels so heightened and in my experience, you’re penalized for being ‘privileged’ at least in Small Claims court, ha!

    Happy Monday!
    xo Mary Jo

  • “Without clear answer, we fall back on feelings. Some of us feel that the greatest societal risk is Harm to The Weak, some of us fear Harm from The Other.”

    One of the clearest thoughts about value systems and their effect on politics and behaviour I have ever come across.

    Thank you.

    7:36 am
    Lisa said...

    And thank you.

  • You may be interested in a new book on jury duty. Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press 2013) (available for $12 at Amazon) is the first book written for jurors on jury service. It puts many of your insights into a historical and constitutional context. It was written because like your experience, many people do jury service without a full understanding of why we have juries in America.

  • I’m a new reader cruising thru your archives. I wanted to say I think that is one of the best posts I have ever read on a blog.

    8:44 am
    Lisa said...

    @Charlotte K, Thank you. That is an exceptionally nice thing to say. Welcome.