15 April 2007

Juree Dutee

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Last week, I did a brief stint of jury duty – which is to say, reporting for potential jury service, though I was not, in the end, chosen to serve on a case. The process as I experienced it is crying out for an efficiency expert. Everything, including the method for selecting jurors and moving them around the courthouse building, could be improved in ways that would result in more smoothly run trials, to say nothing of enhancing the experience for everyone involved. Following are highlights of this experience:

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself

  • Introductory video: the same one I last saw in 2001, narrated by the now-dead Ed Bradley and another TV talking-head. A brief history of the evolution of the jury system and the American judicial process.

  • The video features a History Channel-style recreation of medieval jurisprudence intended to scare us into gratitude for the proverbial Jury of Our Peers. New York State courts seem to have missed the irony with respect to its own autocratic-bureaucratic operations.

  • Overall: 55 minutes of introductions and ad nauseum reiterations of what to do if we thought we deserved an exemption or postponement. Arguably: if it takes someone that long to get the point, they might not be the best candidate for serving on a jury.

  • We were also told several times that people who serve on a jury come away with a better, more informed understanding of our legal system and are (implicitly) more appreciative. Whether this is an understanding of their Kafkaesque absurdity or an appreciation borne of fear, was left unstated.

Twelve Angry Men (and Women)

  • I’m selected in the morning’s first lottery, handed a one page, four-carbon-copy, form to fill out rapidly, all basic questions about me, my family, and our experiences with the law. (“He said, ‘Kid, we only got one question. Have you ever been arrested?’”)

  • This form could easily have been filled out in advance, during the 55 minute waiting period or even online before we arrived! Sure, this approach saves a little paper – but it wastes time, and the quadruplicate forms must have been near-impossible to read.

  • The court officer instructed us to take the elevator to another floor and wait for him in the lobby; we did. It took 10 minutes to note that we were missing someone, and another 10 minutes to find them.

  • Voir dire: it took more than a half-hour just to excuse the three people who did not speak English fluently enough. Whether they faked a lack of proficiency for that purpose (as seemed likely in one instance) or were, in fact, deficient in their language skills, is almost irrelevant.

  • Surely a process could be devised that effectively tests English fluency prior to voir dire – so that the remaining potential jurors (to say nothing of everyone else) do not have to sit there while several not-so-private sidebars are conducted with evident absurdity. “Where are you from?” the judge asked. Silence. Repeat. “[Names a country.]” “And do you understand what I’m saying?” asked the judge. Silence. “[Partial answer.]” And so on went the discussion, testing different aspects of English fluency. In middle America this may not be a huge problem, but in a city of immigrants like New York, surely someone could create a process that better accommodates the flow of people for whom English is not their native language!

  • As this proceeds, the rest of us simply sit there staring into space. Reading has been explicitly discouraged, lest our attention wander from the (non-)proceedings. Exchanging glances with my bench-sitting fellows, it was clear that everyone sensed the ridiculousness of this process, and perhaps envied our two Chinese and one Dominican comrades for their dismissals from court.

  • 3:30pm. I was dismissed from this case. A bunch of us were told we could go home for the day, to report back at 10am the following morning. I suspect that my honest views on New York State drug laws were not appreciated, although I did acknowledge that they are the laws of the land. Since this particular case did not involve charges of drug usage, possession, or sale, it is particularly amusing that this was the likely trigger for my dismissal.

Day Two: Almost Like the Office, Only With More Waiting

  • The next morning, back there I was at 9:45. I found a seat and booted up the laptop, and I got about 30 minutes of e-mailing done before the general announcement for roll call.

  • Another 15 minutes: a lottery for a pending case. Pack up, get ready. It felt like random selections for military service: glum people waiting around, coats and bags in hand, prepped to ship out.

  • Amazingly, they called and then dismissed a person in a wheelchair; I guess there was a transportation issue for this case. But to my earlier point about language difficulties: this would have been the time to handle those, too.

  • I wasn’t picked. Another 5 minutes later, another lottery. Skipped again. Somewhere around 12:30 we were dismissed for lunch, to be back by 2pm.

  • I stayed put. I got more work done. I moved to the lunch room eventually, where a TV tuned to CNN blared on endlessly about Don Imus – Imus in the Morning had become Imus All Day – and ate my leftovers. I got still more work done.

  • 2:20pm: a case might be pending, we were told. We waited. I got more work done, as much as possible in an environment where everyone is distracted, many conversations are happening around me, and someone’s computer keeps on beeping loudly. Around 3pm came the announcement: we were being dismissed. For good. Many laughs about how painless it was (ha ha), another 10 minutes of lingering for my proof of jury service statement, and I was out the door and on my way.


Compared to many other contributions to our society, it’s true that this was painless. At the end of the process, though, I can’t help but feel like our society’s sense of civic duty and obligation is misaligned. In the midst of an out-of-control war, we still have an all-volunteer (and thus under-volunteered) armed forces. Voting, the very cornerstone of any democratic society, is not mandatory, and a good 50% of eligible citizens don’t vote – the consequences of which are both difficult to fathom and, looking at the close elections of 2000 and 2004, easy to imagine. Sure, jury duty was less painful than paying my federal and state income taxes this year. (I agree with Judith Warner: Ouch!) It was less painful and less dangerous than serving in Iraq. But the degree of pain in civic duty should not be the yardstick by which we evaluate the health of our society.


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