“You have to drive all the way downtown! In rush hour!”
“Three months on a capital case! Sequestered. Ended in the jury hung and me damned near divorced!”
“You know what’s crazy? Entrusting your life to twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty!”
But when that summons for jury duty first appeared in my mailbox, I was thrilled. Maybe the courtroom has a certain mystique thanks to all the lawyers in my family – finally I, too, would see behind the judicial curtain. Maybe because it meant I was a real adult. Maybe because I was sure some poor defendant somewhere needed my brilliance to save him from eleven other jurors’ stupidity.
Pretty sure it was that last one. I was just out of grad school, employed part-time, and I might have been able to get excused from jury duty. I went anyway.
For those not familiar with jury duty, it goes like this. The night before you are due to report, you call the LA County juror hotline. A recorded message tells you if you have to show up the following day.
I had to report.
So did another hundred potential jurors. We reported to the jury room in our assigned courthouse.
Helpful hint #1: if you’re smart, you will watch the online video “How Jurors Should Behave” the week before you’re due to report. If you watch it, you get to report a few hours later than other jurors, which means you can a) sleep in, and b) miss the worst of rush hour.
If you don’t watch online, you’ll have to see the Monday morning 8 AM showing of “How Jurors Should Behave” that the smart jurors “saw” online while playing Words With Friends. The video includes the following instructions:
- Do not wear any risqué clothing. (No chest cleavage or butt cleavage or shorts.)
- Do not wear a shirt with a slogan. If you think wearing a “Black Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” t-shirt will get you out of jury duty, forget it. You’ll just have to report back another day without expressing your right to free speech.
- Ignore all lawyers in the halls and elevators lest you compromise a case by holding an elevator for a hot prosecutor. Someone will notice and scream bias. For once you can let the elevator close on others without guilt.
- Don’t fake an emergency or illness. This will only result in postponement of jury service. If you haven’t submitted a written excuse and been approved in advance, there is no escape.
After the How Jurors Behave video, you signal affidavit swearing you’re a legal citizen of the United States. The jury room supervisors give everyone plastic juror badge holders that jurors have to wear at all times. The badge helps lawyers know not to talk shop while in the elevator with you.
Then you sit in the jury room. And wait. Sometimes all day, with a TWO HOUR lunch break. Yes, two hours. This is why the wheels of justice grind slowly.
In Los Angeles, if you don’t get sent to a courtroom by the end of the day, your service is over.
I got sent to a courtroom on my first day.
In the courtroom, a whole other of level of tedium awaited me.
12 jurors were called – by our juror numbers, because we were now anonymous for our own protection – into the jury box. Once in the box, jurors are known by our seat numbers. Since I was in the top row, fourth seat from the left, I was Juror #4.
The judge pointed to a list of questions on the wall of the courtroom and told the jurors to be ready with the answers. When called on, each juror was supposed to state where they lived, if they had served on a jury before, their type of employment, their significant other’s employment, and their children’s employment. If they had a relative who was a police officer or a lawyer, the judge asked if that juror could be impartial and not discuss the case with a lawyer/ police officer friend.
Doesn’t sound like it would take that long, does it? It wouldn’t, if everyone prized efficiency the way I do.
This was my response: “I’m from Los Angeles, I’m work part-time in the entertainment industry, I’m not married, I have no children or significant other, I’ve never served on a jury, I don’t know any police officers. I have a sister who is a lawyer, a grandfather who is a lawyer, my mother was a lawyer, and my ex-stepfather is a lawyer, but I could refrain from discussing the case with any of them.”
The judge thanked me and moved onto the next juror, “Juror #5, could you answer the questions you see on the wall please.”
Juror #5: “I live in Los Angeles. Not married.”
Judge: “Do you have a partner?”
Juror #5: “No.”
Judge: “A significant other?”
Juror #5 promptly turned into a stellar example of male insecurity: “Well, I don’t know about significant, but I got, you know, a little somethin’ somethin’ goin’ on…”
This made a few people chuckle. It made ME want to smack Juror #5 in the head. He wasn’t the only one. I wanted to smack Juror #7 even harder.
Judge: “Do you have any significant other?”
Juror #7: “Not right now.”
Judge: “Do you have any children?”
Juror #7: “Well, none that I KNOW OF.”
Because it was super important that we all know this idiot had sex (undoubtedly with another idiot). Awesome, bro, you wasted our time and the taxpayer’s money to prove your masculinity in an outdated manner. You stud.
The judge refrained from rolling her eyes — somehow — and continued questioning the rest of the jurors. She had to repeat questions and ask follow-up questions. Sometimes people wanted to tell their life stories. Sometimes people got defensive about not being married, or felt compelled to explain all their divorce proceedings.
It felt interminable to those of us who prize efficiency.
And it wasn’t close to over. Once the judge finished with the basics, the attorneys got to ask similar questions, attempting to root out any potential prejudice that rendered a juror biased. If they determined there was a bias, and the judge agreed with the attorneys, that juror was sent back to the jury room. Another potential juror, seated in the courtroom, went into the box. The new juror got the same questions. You’d think the new jurors would have a whole speech down pat, after listening to everyone else. They never did.
I was in the box in LA Superior Court, with a chance to serve on what looked like an interesting criminal case. I got tossed, probably because of all the lawyers in my family.
Instead, I wound up on the most banal of civil cases: a “slip and fall.” A cleaning company had forgotten to put out a “wet floor” sign and a woman in high heels skidded and fell. She sued the cleaning company AND their insurance company for damage done to her knee. I kind of wanted to call Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister and see if the injury was medically legit, but I could not. Jurors are warned repeatedly that they cannot discuss the case with anyone. Jurors aren’t even supposed to form an opinion until jury deliberations begin. I don’t know how that’s possible for a person from a judgmental family like mine, but I always try. Generally the best I can do is give myself permission to keep changing my mind as more facts are presented.
The slip-and-fall case was so boring even the judge fell asleep. Several times. The insurance company’s lawyer was so inexperienced that the judge – when awake — had to keep ending Young Lawyer’s irrelevant line of questioning, because no, no one cared about the type of cleaning fluid used.
When the closing arguments were over and the judge set us off to the private jury room to deliberate, my fellow jurors picked the most ineffectual man alive as the foreperson. The cleaning company personnel had admitted under oath that they “forgot” to put up the yellow caution sign. But somehow, our jury deliberated for days and sent out stupid questions to the judge. The judge repeatedly refer us back to the jury instructions. I was the youngest juror and ignored when I did make suggestions (such as, you know READING the jury instructions). In the end, the three white guys on the jury were sure Plaintiff High Heels wasn’t really injured and would not be moved. Luckily, a civil case only needs nine jurors to agree on the verdict. Case over.
By the time I’d escaped the courtroom, I understood why everyone hated jury duty. The formalities are tedious and time-consuming. The cases are nothing like the trials you see on TV; most objections are voiced quietly, the lawyers never get upset, and the plaintiffs and defendants won’t even so much as roll their eyes. SO. BORING.
I never wanted jury duty again.
I was summoned the following year.