A few weeks ago, I received my first ever jury duty notification. It really is a summons and it speaks with authority, with warnings of serious consequences if you fail to respond or show up on the designated day and time at Court Room 317. Instructions and explanations were pretty good, but it was all rather cold. Who likes an invitation with an or-else clause?
I think serving on a jury is a civic responsibility, but with limits of course — people have lives to live after all — but more about that in a bit.
I thought of mailing my notice back requesting an exemption because I am so very busy and of course undeniably necessary (I’m smiling). But I didn’t. I wanted to see what happens when called to jury duty. I had a bit of this weird Perry Mason thing going on inside of me. I was curious and I did feel obliged to go.
I arrived at the Courthouse 8:20 a.m. on the appointed day. The official “start time” was 8:30 a.m. but we were encouraged to arrive early so we had time to go through security. Since I am always one to follow instructions, I did as I was told. I breezed through security as there was only a line of three people.
I took the elevator to the third floor and stepped out into a sea-snake of people that wrapped around the hallways and through the elevator corridor. I was directed to the end of the line, which frankly took longer to get to than I imagined it would. Most of us looked rather dazed or gazed, but who knows? Maybe I was the only one.
There was a very large gathering space on the floor. Our line wrapped around its pillars. Along one wall there were windows behind which were what appeared to be working spaces undergoing renovation. Behind one of the windows sat a young woman. She was just sitting there from what I could tell. There was the little half circle opening at the bottom of the window panel, large enough to slip an envelope or a cup of coffee through. Eventually, I was standing at her window and I caught her eye, smiled, and said, “I’ll have a hot dog and some fries, please.”
She smiled. We chuckled and then the line moved and so did I. That was the highlight of the day for me. Not sure about her.
It’s a tad funny though. I am referencing the instructions which encouraged getting there a bit early to navigate security only, in reality, to be on time to stand in a very, very, very long line. We were in line to get our “number.” I was prospective juror number 98.
It took 40 minutes before the line of people ended up in one of two courtrooms. We sat there on wood benches or hard plastic office chairs, nearly shoulder to shoulder and waited for this jury duty thing to begin.
There were at the time, two women (court clerks?) sitting behind a dark wood barrier, and three, if not four, sheriffs. In the middle of the room was a television screen and, slow in the head as I am, it took me a while to realize we would be watching and listening on the television. The judge and the opposing counsels were in the other court room.
None of the staff said much about what was going to happen. A woman sitting on the opposite side of the room asked if someone could explain what was going to happen. We were told we would find out later. So we sat there. Bottled water was made available to us. There was a smattering of talking here and there, but mostly we just sat there and waited, our faces pointed at the court staff and sheriffs who basically were just sitting there waiting, too.
About 30 minutes later, out of the blue, we are told to all stand up, grab our belongings, and leave the court room and that after a few minutes we could come back inside. Quite a few of us looked around at one another, as if to make sure we had heard the same thing and weren’t delusional or unwitting characters in some Monty-Python-like satire on the judicial system.
Like true Canadians, we rose, gathered up our meagre belongings and made our way into the hallways and stood like restless yet polite statues until we heard the all clear signal and returned from whence we came. We were never told why this short-lived exodus was necessary. I still have no clue.
We settled back in and it was maybe 10 minutes later when the judge appeared on television. He was a man with silver-white hair, defined features, a friendly voice and as he spoke and later listened to jurors make their case for being exempted, I saw a kindness in him that for some odd reason surprised me. A kind judge? Really?
Oh the biases that flow through our veins only to be shattered by experience!
I liked him, and truth be told all of the court room staff and sheriffs were convivial and helpful once there was actually something to do. They horsed around a bit and shared some humorous exchanges with some of us. I still felt uncomfortable and impatient but I have no complaints about the staff or the judge. They all came off as good people.
The judge spent a good twenty minutes explaining what was going to happen over the course of the day. Short story is they needed 28 people of the 300 in the room to sit on two juries (each with 12 jurors and two alternates, for those doing the math) for two court cases, one that would last into March and another that was expected to go about a week to ten days.
(That’s when I gulped.)
Basically the clerk in the other room called out 15 to 20 numbers by rolling some kind of bin — I imagined something you might see in a bingo hall — and picking a number, then rolling again and picking a number, and so on and so on. If your number was called you were to go stand in front of the courtroom where the judge was presiding, turn your back to him and face the prosecution and defense teams, with at least 200 other prospects watching from the galley.
My number came up in the fifth round. Until my turn came I watched the judge on television talk to those asking to be exempted from jury duty. Most of it was an exchange of whispers, out of respect for privacy. With maybe one or two exceptions he granted the exemptions. I couldn’t make out what happened to those who didn’t request one, but something was going down. There were numerous muffled voices, all owned by lawyers, and I assumed decisions were being made about the acceptability of the person standing in front of them.
I finally got my turn. I stood in the big court room facing the lawyers and the crowd and watched as others up there with me went before the judge or stood in front of the lawyers. The judge talked with people like I described earlier, but here’s the thing about the others who faced the lawyers.
All each person did was stand there. They were not asked one question. Then that prospective juror was dismissed because opposing counsels never once agreed. One would say yes, the other would say no. Their rationale? Who knows? But apparently a court of law is where it is common place to judge a book by its cover.
How does one select a jury of the defendant’s peers by looking at them for a few seconds? Earlier, the judge advised us not to take rejection personally, but come on. It can’t feel good to be denied one’s civic duty based solely on appearance. Besides, in other realms, wouldn’t that be illegal or at least frowned upon?
I was a bit shocked by it, to be honest, but 10 minutes later, after a successful appeal to the judge, I walked away, with a bit of a what-the-hell-just-happened look on my face, relieved to be taking the elevator back down to the real world I was accustomed to.
There was no way I could sit on a jury for ten days or into March. I explained why to the judge. He understood and set me free.
Here’s what I am wondering.
Why can’t going down to the courthouse for jury duty be more engaging, more convivial, less threatening, and more efficient? In this day and age of self-driving automobiles and flying objects 10 years-old fly in fields and around their neighbourhoods, there has to be a software program to replace rolling that bingo drum to pick numbers from. Flash-boom, there they are on the big screen. See your number, scoot over to the judge, and let’s get on with the doing some selecting and exempting. I bet that technology would shave two hours off the experience.
Maybe this is a wild idea or perhaps is sourced in my phobia of lines, but might it be possible to instruct half of us to show up at 8:30 and the other half be told to arrive at 9:00? Shorter lines for everyone and it would take no longer than the current process. In fact, do we really need to be there that early if things don’t begin until closer to 10 a.m.?
Now I don’t really understand how courts do what courts do or what demands and responsibilities staff face over the course of the work week. I imagine there is a ton of stuff to do, much of it exacting and taxing work, but at the very least, for what it it’s worth, the optics were not all that good. The judicial system came off as sluggish and backward. There were substantive periods of time when staff were basically doing little, if anything, other than being in the same room with us. It’s the kind of optics frustrated people share on Twitter and Facebook.
Yeh, I didn’t care much for the experience. But you know what? I hope I get another summons a few years down the road when I am no longer so busy and so damn important. I will shave, polish my shoes, put on my lucky green shirt and my comfy black slacks and go on down and stand straight before the lawyers, conjure up the best-ever pick me face and hope I look like the juror both sides want on their side.
I probably won’t like the process of getting there.
But I would like to sit on a jury. It’s important and despire my previous commentary, it would be an honor to do so.