“Ahhhh” is the only exclaim that comes to mind. A summons to appear. An order to be present or else. I have been served. Jury Duty! The notice gives clear and concise instructions: be present or be in trouble. I am being commanded to be available to, as framed in our legal system, pass judgment on one of my peers for their transgressions. This of course raises two curious questions: (a) if I don’t show I will be guilty my own transgressions and thus so be entitled to a trial to by judged by my peers, but if they are my true peers, they won’t show up either so how could they judge me? And (b) how am I someone’s equal if they are out committing criminal sins and I am not? I will have to answer these questions someday, I propose to myself as I trek the path up my driveway to my humble abode. Ah ha, I think, maybe I am their equal because they also live in a crowded, crammed together housing development with no yards and walls that abut the unit next door. These designs have been declared by the State of California as a P.U.D. – a Planned Unit Development. I had long ago realized that PUD may be slander referring to the person or persons to whom purchased these units, thus making me a PUD.
The instructions on the folded heavy-paper notice are extremely accurate. First, I have been assigned my very own special number. Just me. Only I. No one else has – my number. Wait, have I finally learned my number? The number I heard many a relatives speak of when referring to the death of another human being with the expression, “Their number was up”? At first I was elated, I have my number! Then I turned somber, gads, I have my number!
“I am not ready for my number to be up”, I exclaimed out loud. I had yet to climb Mt. Everest – the highest mountain in the world, nor I had climbed Mt. McKinney the highest peak in the US. I had not traveled by boat up the Amazon braving piranha, snakes, deadly spiders and other wildlife, nor snow skied down nearly vertical slopes in Colorado, ran in the Boston Marathon, or competed in the Great Alcatraz Iron Man race in San Francisco. Wait a minute, who am I kidding, I have no desire to do any of those things. Those activities rank right there with parachuting – why jump out of a perfectly good, functioning airplane? Not me. But in case my number was up, it’s time for a beer. And a pizza. If I am going out, I will at least not be hungry and thirsty.
Carefully I scan the instructions printed in bright red ink on my summons. It explains that on a selected day I am to call, after 6PM please, a special telephone number which will play a recording giving the range of numbers that are to report to the court house at 8AM the next morning. If my number is inclusive in the range of numbers given – be there. If not, have a nice day, you have completed your obligation.
Uh? You get out of jury duty by calling and if your number is not selected you have done your civic duty? Seems a little weak to me. I would put that up there with thinking about voting but not actually voting. ‘I sort of, almost, just about did my communal obligations’, was not the lesson I thought I learned those many years ago in high school. But that was a long time ago, many things could have changed since the days when I walked 5 miles in deep snow – up hill – just to get to that little one room building. Ok, maybe a little exaggeration, it may have been more like 40 feet in 2 inches of snow to the bus stop in front of my house for a ride 5 miles to school. My mind remains a little foggy with the prospect that I have received my number.
On the selected day, I make the dreaded call. Will I be wanted by the Ventura County Court industry? Will I be free to walk a free man again? Will I be able to fake out my boss by telling him I went to jury duty when I really did not and thus get a day off? The phone rings, it is answered, a metallic voice starts announcing that the numbers between the following numbers must report to Jury Services promptly on time tomorrow. The numbers are given. Yikes. My number has been called. I have been selected. My number is up!
I accept that I must appear. I call my boss at home to tell him I will not be at work tomorrow, I have jury duty. His simple response, “Do you really or are you just telling me you do so you can get a day off with pay?” “How dare you say such a thing” I respond, not admitting that he may have received this call regardless of if my number was up or not. I offer to let him call the info number himself if he does not believe me. He only laughs and tells me to have a good time and take a good book. This causes my divergent mind to wonder, how do I know if it is a good book until I have read it and if I have read it, why would I take it just to read it again? Enough of this hopscotch train of rambling questions on life, I have to get to the store before it closes to buy a book and hope that it is good.
As I learned from my exalted time in the US Army, be at your appoint place at the appointed time in the proper uniform or be declared AWOL. I arrived in business attire 15 minutes early at my destination. A (hoped) good book in my pocket. After checking in, I settled in to an uncomfortable, hard plastic chair, one of many arranged in nice, straight rows. The chairs all faced toward the command desk staffed by two ladies who appeared to have accumulated enough years on this earth that they may well have attended said one room school house on the prairie. Then again, I pondered, if they are the ones that assign the numbers and they are the ones that select the numbers, they could keep their number from ever coming up. Could they not live forever if this is so?
Next came a short speech about the rules – when and where lunch would be served, what we could/could not do, where we could/could not go, to whom we could/could not speak to. They instructed us to settle down and settle in. It was explained that as judge needed a jury pool, they would receive a phone call and random numbers would be selected to be sent to the courtroom. More prospective jury members would be sent then was actually needed in case the judge or the lawyers decided that one or more were unacceptable equals to the person or persons being judged. Not peer enough, I assumed. Those not selected would return to the jury pool room to await being reselected for another trek in the majestic halls of justice. However, they would go to the bottom of the list meaning everyone else would have to make their odyssey down said halls before they could be called again. Toward the end of the day, it was explained, some god-like person would decide that no more citizens would be needed to fulfill their civic obligations and everyone still in the jury pool room, regardless of if they had been called or not, would be free to go with the thanks of the court. Although a nice short set of instructions, I nearly nodded off during the 10 minute disorientation (intentional word misuse) on how I should be honored to be selected to be treated like cattle being moved from pen to pen only to be culled from the group and sent to another pen to await my fate.
I started reading my book. Two pages into it, the first group of targets, uh I mean, potential jurists were called. With in that group, I was selected. With my group I started down the dark wood paneled, marbled floored hallways toward our destination. I had to wonder does justice come more fairly in rooms covered with thick natural wood and shiny rock flooring as opposed to the cheap thin stuff used everywhere else? Yes I have to wonder these things. No one else does so it falls to me to seek out the path not taken. Provided the path does not involve physical danger or risk death like mountain climbing, snow skiing, swimming with piranhas or exiting an airplane while still in mid-flight.
My entourage arrived at our target and was admitted to the stately room with high ceilings, wood covered walls and wood benches arranged in rows facing a formidable desk perched high above the rest of the room. Behind the desk sat a noble looking, elderly man in a black robe. Behind him a large oval replica of the Seal of the State of California and flanking the seal, the US and California flags. An assistant to the judge then announces that they will select 12 numbers at random from the 20 or so members present. Those 12 would then be seated in the jury box for questioning by the judge and the lawyers. If anyone was deemed excusable by the legal professionals, to the jury pool room they would travel and a replacement would be selected from the remaining members. Once 12 acceptable members were agreed on, any remaining members would be chased from the room by a burly, gun wielding court bailiff. Chased hell, tell anyone they could go and they would be gone long before the bailiff could put down his jelly filled donut and dig his one bullet from his shirt pocket.
The clerk started calling off numbers. The 8th number rang out – mine. Still marked at page 2, my “good” novel remained in my pocket as I passed through a small wooded gate, crossed to the jury box and sat in my assigned chair. Shortly there after the 12th member of the initial round of jury candidates was seated. This was a civil case so the judge and the legal counselors wanted to know if we would biased regarding the general case subject matter. The questioning began. After a series of questions from assorted members of the California Bar, the 12 originally called prospective jurists became the sitting jury. One of the lawyers quipped that in all his years of practicing law he had never had the first 12 selected members be seated. The other lawyer responded it was his first time also. The judge, quietly raising his hand like a student in school, added that it was also his first time with over 40 years as a lawyer and a judge combined. “Great”, I thought. “I just made history.” My book remained in my pocket, bookmarked at page 2.
The case began. It lasted the rest of the day. Restarted the next morning. We finished the trial part, then was locked in the jury room for discussions. By early afternoon we had reached a consensus and thusly delivered to the judge our verdict. We were dismissed and I left the marbled floored, wood walled halls of justice.
I still have yet to figure out if marble and solid wood actually reverberate better justice. I also do not recall if I actually read the book or if it was good or not. Most importantly, I did sell my PUD so I am now PUDless. Or clueless. Or both.
Summation: In reality the experience was not unpleasant. Inconvenient maybe. Informative without a doubt. We had reached a judgment substantially less then plaintive desired, but in my opinion far more then I would have thought was deserved if I was sitting in judgment alone. But the group discussed it and voted on a certain amount. That is the center note importance of the 12 member jury system, one single mind does not solely dictate the outcome. A few wanted to award more, a few less, someone picked a medium area and eventually we narrowed in that general area.
Many people do everything they can to get out of jury services. Some throw away the summons and claim they never received the notice. I have to wonder how they would feel if they ever sat at a table in the court room and no one entered to be present to help decide a mutual agreement to settle their dispute – civil or criminal? They are likely members of the group of people who do not vote but do not cease complaining about those who are voted in to office. Their opinion clearly matters only to their mouth but not to their hand to operate a voting machine.
I have twice since been requested to sit for jury services. Once I was in a group of numbers that was not needed and I was out without ever going in. The other time, I sat all day reading a book until after 4 PM and was never requested to journey to a court room. I was dismissed from services “as not needed but still present as requested”.
Epilogue: I will not name the parties in the case nor will I discuss the specifics of the case or the outcome. No, it is not to protect the innocent or even the guilty. While the experience remains fresh in my mind, many of the details of the case do not. I feel that it in not only an obligation to attend jury services it is a privilege. In so many places, your fate is controlled not by people who may have had similar experiences as you and can so understand your position, but rather are controlled by a select group of politically connected individuals who will view your life from their angle. An angle that may look downward toward where you are, where you were and where you should remain.
Yes I started this very serious subject with humor and hopefully it kept you entranced long enough to get to this part and maybe now you realize, you do count and you should get involved, stay involved. Both in jury services and in voting.
May the best of life be with you and I hope you never need the services of a jury, but if you do, may 12 of the best, most appropriate peers respond to the calling and provide their services to reach the best resolution to the situation.
John C. Carter