March 3, 2012

JURIES: Yesterday’s post on jury duty produced this email from Magistrate Judge Bruce Guyton in Knoxville:

Enjoyed the link today to “Why Does Everyone Hate Jury Duty”.

Here in the Eastern District, we put the comfort, security and needs of our jurors first. As a result, our “exit surveys” of former jurors shows overwhelmingly positive experiences on jury service. Maybe the L.A. court administrator should spend some time in East Tennessee.

Never a bad idea. And reader Brian Oxley writes:

I was recently on a state felony trial here in Harris Co. (Houston) and was most impressed with the respect the entire system showed jurors.

One quick example. Everyone stood for the jury as it entered and exited, even the judge. We did not rise for the judge when she entered or exited.

In fact, I was so impressed by our judge and her peroration honoring the jury, I plan to work for her reelection campaign.

Maybe this is an argument for elected judges. Meanwhile, reader Yakko Warner writes:

My take: I don’t hate the concept of jury duty itself. The problem is, it’s mandated service for less than minimum wage.

I’ve been called for jury duty twice in the past decade. The first time, I was a contractor, and as a contractor, my employer was only obligated to pay me the state-mandated amount of $50/day. The second time, I was a full-time employee, so I got my full salary for the two days of jury selection. However, the trial was estimated to last eight days, and employers are only required to give their employees full pay for three, after which we get the same $50/day. There’s no way I’d be able to pay my mortgage — let alone all the other bills, plus food for my family of six — on that.

For reference, minimum wage is over $7, or over $56 for an eight-hour day.

Plus, from reader Brian Finlay:

I’ve been conducting jury trials for about 8 years now as a criminal defense attorney and now prosecutor.

In my jurisdiction, it is usually obvious from the moment potential jurors enter the courtroom that they are unhappy about being there. I try to use that to my advantage by acknowledging that fact during voir dire. Normally, one of my first questions is whether anyone is really thrilled and excited to be there. Predictably, no hands go up, which usually leads to some laughter. I then spend the next few minutes talking to them about why it’s so uncomfortable and inconvenient and how important their job as jurors is. From that point forward, they are usually much more comfortable and responsive. It may or may not lead to a better verdict, but at least I don’t have an angry mob glaring at me for the duration of the trial.

Reader Claire Toohey emails:

I’ve heard horror stories about jury duty, but I was recently on a long-ish trial, about 5 weeks. Second degree murder was the most serious charge. Plenty of people who thought they might be eliminated as jurors ended up included, and we had a couple of lawyers, financiers, a retired police chief, a recently elected town official, teachers, and other people with glancing knowledge of the issues that would be raised. The issues included were complex enough we were allowed to take notes, which the court kept in custody. A court officer said he’d never seen a jury take so many–most of us had to request second pads of paper. If I were being tried for as serious a crime, I’d want a jury like mine, full of smart, experienced people who really did have other stuff to do, but who meant their oaths. They considered what was presented with the care it deserved, and no person tried to or was allowed to dominate other people’s opinions.

We were treated cordially, as if we were VIP guests, by every court officer. Our judge decided matters quickly, kept to her declared schedule, and kept the trial rolling (especially important as we were fast approaching Christmas). Even with that, there were unexpected issues that turned 3 weeks to 5, but what I most appreciated was the free wifi in the jury room and lounge, so I could at least log in to work during breaks, and that we were allowed to keep our cellphones until final deliberations. I know relying on the court-admitted evidence, not outside info, is vital to the process, but if we want more qualified people to be willing to serve, we have to be willing to rely on people’s oaths and to see violators prosecuted for knowingly breaching them. Treat us like responsible adults whose presence and service is valued. The nature of the crimes and the defense made the going difficult at times, but the court officers and procedures didn’t make it any worse. It was a valuable experience, and improved my confidence in the system.

And reader Fred Butzen writes:

Well, people hate jury duty because the pay is lousy, it screw up your work schedule, and, with few exceptions, it’s mind-numbingly boring. The only time in my life that I saw Oprah show was when I was called for jury duty at Cook County family court. The jurors had to wait in a dingy cafeteria-style room that had a TV on each wall, all of which were tuned
to Oprah: there was no escaping her!

On the other hand, I did serve on a jury once, for a medical malpractice case, again in Cook County. It was a two-week trial, a difficult case. I have to say, the experience raised my opinion of the legal system enormously. What impressed me most was the fact that two parties placed their intractable dispute into the hands of 12 fellow citizens, drawn more or less at random, trusting that we would render a just verdict. We were a cross section of the Cook County population, ranging from a woman with a doctorate in pharmacology, to a retired school teacher, to a young Hispanic homemaker, to a garage mechanic. The scope of knowledge in that room was impressive, as was the wisdom with which it was applied in our deliberations. I think I’m a better citizen for having had the experience.

Yes, most people who actually serve on juries come away fairly impressed with the experience. It’s the non-jury waiting time that seems to be the most galling aspect.

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