Think about things that come in the mail. Now, rank them into levels based on desirability. The top level is clearly anything with money or a present in it. Below that, things that you’ve paid for and ordered. Real letters are pretty high up there. Now, travel far down the list – below the Nigerian bank scams, below your student loan statements. There, at the deepest, darkest level, is the jury summons. We all hate that damn jury summons.
I was able to put off my summons twice, and I’m pretty proud that I didn’t even have to lie about it. I was genuinely studying abroad the first time, and in school out of state the second time. By the time the third summons came, my only excuse was “I don’t want to,” which is I guess not recognized in New York.
I must have been just as shifty a character in a past life as I am in this one, because karma handed me a grand jury summons. In NY, grand juries hear evidence for felony cases and decide whether or not to indict the accused. Doesn’t sound like karmic retribution yet? Grand juries are in court all day, every weekday for a month (or once a week for like a million years – I didn’t end up with that one). And here’s the kicker: there’s no voir dire. You know, that thing where lawyers ask questions to the prospective jurors, and you try to sound real dishonorable-like so they don’t pick you? Nope. If you get the summons, and they pull your number, and you’re not the primary caregiver for a dying person or a baby, then you’re spending the next month in the basement of your local courthouse drinking depressing office-quality coffee and paying for your own parking.
Yeah. They don’t even pay for your parking (there’s some sort of stipend, or usually you’ll still get paid by your job, but still. Parking.)
Once I accepted the reality of being on the Grand-Freaking-Jury for an entire month, I devised a plan to go incognito. See, I bring it up on the blog when it’s relevant, but in real life I don’t necessarily love telling people that I’m a lawyer. First of all, people usually express some sort of surprise when I tell them. Let’s be clear: I don’t care what anyone thinks about me, or whether or not they like what I do for a living, or if they think I look like a lawyer. In fact, I care so little that it makes for a really boring conversation that I don’t even want to bother with. Added to that, it would lead to some extra awkwardness if other jurors asked me to explain legal stuff. Plus, I didn’t want anyone to think that it carried extra weight if the attorney voted a certain way on a case.
After a solid week of super-secret deliberations, I had to blow my own cover. Some people were grossly misinterpreting a law, and I couldn’t hold it in any more. It was fine, I promise. It was, however, kind of frustrating to know that although I had studied the law, my opinion was worth no more than anyone else’s. Even though I was totally right. Here’s a good thing, though: if you find yourself in a randomly assigned group of 23 people from your community, you’re going to like most of them. Obviously there will be a few loudmouths or weirdos, but loudmouths and weirdos make the world go ‘round.
So, after all that, why should you answer the summons? Civic engagement. You’re a part of your country, state, town, whatever. Act like it. I don’t expect everyone to get as fired up about the legal system as I am, but you still have to admit that it’s all pretty interesting. For a lot of folks, jury service is the only way they’ll ever interact with the justice system outside of Law and Order marathons. Particularly for grand jury – where you’ll hear up to a dozen cases a day – it’s the best way to know what’s going on in your community. Yeah, it was a bummer not being able to tell anyone I was on the jury for some of the high-profile stuff we heard, but the cases and evidence were fascinating. Not to mention, you are playing a role in prosecuting a crime or exonerating someone who is not guilty. I know the “jury service is a privilege” thing gets played up a lot, but that is a pretty huge privilege. In a lot of countries the accused are just thrown to the mercy of whichever judge they happen to get. Juries should make things a little more fair. Liberty and justice and all.
The news this week has me thinking about the other reason you should stop saying you have to “take your grandmother to a medical procedure” and just show up for your darn jury duty. If you hear about cases where you don’t agree with the jury verdict, you have no business shrugging off the privilege of serving on a jury yourself. You might not get picked, but at least be prepared to serve. There were times in deliberations where I couldn’t believe the assumptions that some of the other jurors were making — but since I was there, I was able to argue for the way I saw things. It’s like voting, that way: if you aren’t willing to do it yourself, then you don’t really get to complain about the results.
Lawyers, you definitely want to answer that summons. If it’s for regular jury duty, you know there’s a 99.999% chance that you’re not getting empaneled anyway. And for Grand Jury? My-oh-my did I see and hear things that lawyers usually aren’t privy to. There were some comments from the presiding judge and this one improbably old juror that surprised even me – some lawyers out there are facing real biases in the courtroom, even if nobody will say it to your face. Plus, all that stuff you learn in law school about how juries think, and how they interpret evidence, and their understanding of jury instructions? Okay, I hate to say it, but a lot of it was super-true. It was disheartening, but I’m glad I got to see it firsthand. It’s nice to know what you’re up against. If you go to court intent on kicking ass and taking names, just know that in some courtrooms, you might have to kick extra hard.
The next time you get that jury summons in the mail, I know you’re not going to be as excited as if it were a rebate check or a birthday card. Trust that I hate doing inconvenient things as much as the next person. There was some unpleasantness: hearing things I didn’t want to hear coming from a judge’s mouth, really bad coffee, seeing the law that I spent 3 years studying being applied in ways I didn’t always feel was right, the parking (vouchers. Come on. Please.) On the whole, though, jury service is a privilege to complain about.