Adventures in Jury Duty

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I had jury duty today. I wasn't supposed to. I'd called in when I first got the notice, which was shortly after Sophia was born. They don't give you a lot of time. I think it was ten days' notice. I called and asked if I could postpone it until January when I wasn't teaching, and they said that would be fine, but I decided to hold off until I talked to Sam. I then left my summons right where it wouldn't get lost, which means I didn't see it very often and didn't think about calling back any time when I was near a phone. Well, at 1:30 this morning while I was trying to get Isaiah back to sleep, I remembered, but it was too late to call for the postponement. I had to call three people today while I was there to get someone to leave a note on the board in my classroom that I wouldn't be there with instructions to bring their papers to the Philsophy Department. In the process, I stumbled upon the information that I'm being offered a 300-level course at the university next semester, which is rare for a graduate student, though they did give me a 400-level last year. These two classes come up for adjuncts to teach each once every three years, so I'm excited to be able to do both of them. I've been doing 300-level courses at the small college I teach at, but that doesn't seem as much of an honor to get.

Well, anyway, jury duty itself was quite an experience. I spent the large bulk of the time sitting around grading. For such an important civic duty that requires many people to miss days of work, they sure do use their jurors' time ineffectively. I got a fair amount of grading done, though, more than I'd originally hoped to do today if I'd been home and on campus. They spent lots of time telling us what it would be like and warning us that it's not like on TV. Basically three or four different people had to tell us all the same things, each time adding a little new. I wouldn't exactly call it an efficient system, but it amazed me how many times I had to fill my fellow jurors in on things that had been stated quite clearly, so maybe that's why they repeat things so much. They know people don't listen.

The most interesting part was the actual courtroom time. I got sent to the first case to get filled, and the Commissioner of Jurors had already told me that he wouldn't excuse me himself even though he thought I had good reasons to get excused, simply because he expected the judge to excuse me, and if he excused me I'd have to postpone it, but a judge's excuse would get me out of there for six years. So I guess he thought he was being nice. I did want to serve. I just wanted to do it in January. So I would have enjoyed a postponement even more, and then I could have gone home and taught today. Now my students will be missing a whole class of material, and I spent so much time on their exam last night that I'll have to teach to the exam and ignore some issues I wanted to cover just to prevent reorganizing the whole thing. So it would have been more convenient for me if he hadn't tried to be so nice (of course maybe he was just pretending to be nice to make it sound as if his required job makes me do the thing better for me; if so, I wasn't fooled by his reasoning, even if I thought he might have meant well).

The fact that they had too many cases for the number of jurors there that day also meant that I'd have to get out of two cases, which didn't prove to be as easy as I first thought once I'd gotten out of the first one (see below; it had a lot less to do with me as an individual that caused me to get out of it). So in that way I'm not sure he was doing the nice thing either. He meant well, of course, and he probably also wanted to teach me a lesson to follow instructions better by giving me the suspense of not knowing what would happen, which I understand. I'd have done the same thing if I heard people say things like that to me every day, and I'm sure some of the excuses are much more lame than giving an exam in a week's time with lots of exams to return to students before that, a newborn in the house leading to chaos when the other kids don't have proper supervision, and a difficult time remembering daily things, never mind out-of-the-ordinary things like a jury summons.

Well, anyway, after being there since a little after 8:00 I finally got called to a courtroom well after 10:30, maybe close to 11:00. It was a criminal case with a defendant who looked underage. It involved some serious violent crime charges but no killing. The judge really reminded me of Justice Scalia, with a similar look and the same accent. I really admired his way of putting messy legal concepts into concise and clear terms, using good analogies and so on. I would have enjoyed being in his courtroom as a juror. They went through maybe seven or eight people, most making it to the benches after answering the introductory questions and having a chance to give any reasons why they might not be able to serve at this time, in this case, or for the expected duration. I think two people were excused before me. So I would have been up for being on this jury had the judge not considered my plea for excusal worth granting. It turned out he did.

Well, he conferred with the lawyers and sent me off with what he called an excuse with consent. I had to go back to the room for jurors to wait in. As I went in, the last of the jury pool that had been called in today was leaving for a case. Three of the five cases that had request juries now had groups of jurors sent to them for selection. Two hadn't received anyone yet. So I had to sit there waiting for enough more jurors to return so that we had enough to go to another case. After about a half hour, the woman in charge of the room told us all to take a lunch break, and the time she gave us to come back happened to be an hour and 20 minutes later, which seemed really strange to me. It wasn't even as if it ended on a major time block We left at 12:25, and she told us to come back at 1:45. That seemed a waste of time, but I left, got some food, returned, and graded some more until the group of 15 of us who were there finally got called off to a trial. I still don't know what happened to everyone else. Maybe people returned and got sent to new trials while I was at lunch or something, but it seemed to me that there should have been far more excused jurors for those three trials, given the number of jurors there.

Well, at 2:30 we went off to another trial, this time a civil one. It was a damages for personal injury suit, and I thought, "Oh, great, an ambulance chaser!" The judge, who happened to be one of the NY Supreme Court justices, introduced the lawyers and said some more stuff, most of which was what people had told us three times before but some of which was new. Then he left, saying that the lawyers could do everything on their own from there. I guess civil courts work very differently. The plaintiff's lawyer then got up and began questioining the 12 of the 15 of us brought there who had been called up to the jurors' seats. I was #4 this time. We didn't get an opportunity to give our situations, which is what the judge in the criminal trial had done. That upset me a little. He asked people if they'd been injured in an accident, particularly if they've had court experience with such cases. One person had been sued in such a case and said he couldn't be impartial. One had sued for damages in such a case and had lost all confidence in the court system when he lost. Another had seen a friend lose such a case and have to fork over lots of money, also leading to loss of confidence in the system. One guy had objections having to do with wondering why insurance couldn't cover such things, which led to the lawyer explaining that we couldn't get into such issues, and the guy also mentioned that his wife had had a stroke and had to be taken care of.

I mentioned that I have philosophical hesitation toward assigning monetary value to injury or pain, which led him to explain that there isn't a better way to try to compensate people for this sort of thing, and it is based on monetary facts like doctors' bills and expenses, though he admitted that there were intangibles as well. He asked if I could put my objections and be unbiased in such a case, but that missed my point, which wasn't about whether I could be unbiased but about whether I would want to sit on a jury holding them up by not wanting to decide anything, which I know full well I'd do on any case trying to connect some abstract number with concrete tangibles. I just don't do well with such things. I never got around to expressing my other considerations, because the woman next to me asked to relate a private family matter to the lawyers in private. She spent three or four minutes with them and then returned to us to wait another four or five minutes for the lawyers, who were discussing far more than that woman's issue. When they came out again, they told us all we were dismissed and that they'd see us again in six years. I imagine they thought we were the most obstinate jury they'd ever seen, even with the four people (out of twelve) who said they'd be happy to do their best being unbiased and willing to listen to facts and evidence. They may have been right. We'd been sitting around all day, almost no one there still wanted to have anything to do with this, and a number of us really did have particular issues with this kind of case (I bet some of them were lying). I'm guessing they'd rather start new with another day's jurors than have to deal with the dregs of the rest of the day's juror rejects. I really felt sorry for the lawyer who had to face such incredible resistance, probably each being fueled by the others, but I particularly felt sorry for the woman who was sitting there after dealing with five years of medical issues and pain from her injuries. She almost broke down crying once or twice listening to people who sounded as if they thought this whole business was nonsense.

In the end I feel as if I let the justice system down. I wasn't (by far) the worst of the crew, but I contributed to it. Also, if I'd made that phone call, they may have had one further less resistant person in there, but I'm not sure it would have been a lot different without me. Some of those people seemed even more dead set on getting out of there, and I can't believe they were all being honest. I would have done it if they'd pushed me a little more and there hadn't been so many people really down on the whole principle of the thing. I would have done it even though it would have been disastrous for my students and very hard for Sam. There's a reason it's called jury duty, after all. I'm glad to be out of there, though. That whole last scene was both amusing and tragic, each in a few different ways, and my desire to serve as a juror (which I'd wanted to realize by postponing it to January, when psychologically speaking I would have had less resistance to wanting to serve as a juror) now has to wait another six years or so (which probably isn't true, since I'll probably be in another state, or at least another county, by then, and I may well get called sooner if I get added to a new list that doesn't tell them about this time).

So that was my day today. I got a fair amount of grading done, I'm completely exhausted after being up much of the night and then spending the day alternating between fairly intense grading and serious tension and suspense from not knowing what was going to happen. I still hope to get my Why I'm Voting for Bush post done tonight, but if I don't it's because I'm just too tired both to think about that and finish my grading for tomorrow, which doesn't end the grading by a long shot, because the other class's exam needs to be returned by Friday, and then I'll have a whole new paper to grade for each class and then another exam coming from each class next week, though this time I won't be a month behind due to a new baby, which makes me feel so much less hurried.

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