Jury Duty: Dispatches From The Edge

by: Chris Thompson

Few things rise above our collective scorn as jury duty. But it can’t be all that bad can it?

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Jury Duty. As much as we may lament about it we are all, eventually, called to serve. It’s part of our Democratic way of life and its trinity of ideals, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, all converge onto one unifying theme: Justice. And for as much as it is criticized as a form of involuntary servitude, being selected as a juror does play a vital role in the functioning of our republic. Last month was my turn to be put through the rigors of the jury selection process and to do my part for Lady Justice and I entered into my judicial conscription with lofty hopes. Chief  amongst those hopes was to not be selected as a juror because let’s face it, that shit’s disruptive.

Having survived my term of service for the most part unscathed, I can honestly tell you that the jury selection process sucks. It’s like all the bad parts about growing-up have been made legally binding and you can’t escape. But there are ways to soften its blows. You just need to keep an open mind and come prepared. And while jury duty offers plenty of opportunities for misery, here are a few of my own suggestions for making your next visit to the Halls of Justice a little less tortuous….

I. Stay focused:

Don’t pick me. This must be your mantra as you arrive at the courthouse first thing in the morning. Wear this phrase about your neck like a powerful amulet and keep it quietly running through your mind as the day unfolds. Every action (or inaction) should be filtered through this phrase. Yes, you are a lucky bastard to be a bona fide citizen of the United States in a world gone batshit crazy, but you can easily become just as unlucky if you happen to catch the favor of a lawyer looking for a few warm bodies to round-out his jury.

II. Supplies:

Being called for jury duty is a lot like going on a field trip to the National History Museum. Except when you get there you find out all the museum’s exhibits have been replaced by uncomfortable chairs and the museum guides only provide long-winded explanations about judicial bureaucracy and protocol. And there are no goddamn dinosaurs. No giant squid. No whales. No anything fun. Here are a few items to bring along with you in your backpack when your jury selection day arrives:

  1. Beverages: Bottled water, Cherry Coke, large coffee or Four Loko will suffice. Hydration is key.
  2. Entertainment: Laptop, smartphone or tablet. Or if you are of the more analog mindset: newspaper, magazine or book. And bring along a pair of headphones. Hell, bring two! Try wearing them without listening to anything. You’d be amazed what people say around you when they think you can’t hear them.
  3. Writing instrument: Pen or pencil. But not pen AND pencil because that’s just nuts and screams overachiever. Remember, you do not want to stand-out.
  4. Notebook: For doodling, playing of self in tic-tac-toe, writing down thoughts or leaving strange notes for others to find.
  5. Snacks: Pizza-flavored Combo’s, Clif Bar, Baby Ruth, bag of Sour Skittles. This is your chance to eat what you want. Go nuts. No one will care, they’re too focused on surviving their own little personal nightmares to notice your indulgences. Like Funyuns? Who doesn’t? But bring your own bag, because the snacks in the “Juror’s Lounge” are over-priced and the Cool Ranch Doritos always run out early.
  6. Puzzle Books: May I suggest The Moscow Puzzles? It’s the most popular puzzle book ever published in the Soviet Union. It’s a fantastic and charming book that mixes logic with whimsy and humor. Plus, many of the puzzles are new to us Western readers. весело!
  7. Personal Hygiene Products: Pack baby wipes or hand sanitizer at the minimum. A lot of asses have sat in those seats and a sea of people have touched those tables and chairs. Suspect everything. Ebola’s out there.

III. Voir Dire

This would be a good time to bone-up on your judicial lingo. Voir dire is what happens to you when your name is finally called-out over the courthouses barely-understandable public address system and you find yourself in a small, windowless room filed with strangers and two sharp-dressed lawyers. Translated loosely as “to tell the truth,” voir dire is technically defined as the process by which prospective jurors are questioned about their backgrounds and potential biases before being selected to serve on a jury. But let me present it to you in a more relatable context: voir dire is like waking up one morning and your bed is suddenly in the middle of a dirt-filled ring. Surrounding you is a crush of well-dressed men and women, all waving and howling as an auctioneer in a wide-brimmed Stetson walks around with a microphone shouting half-words you can barely understand while pointing in your direction. You are the main event. The center of attention. This is your brain on Jury Duty. You are, for a brief moment, the most important person in the room. You are prized cattle being weighed and measured by the lawyers around you, sold to the highest bidder, the one whose needs suit him the most. You will be asked many personal questions. You will be asked to share. Relate. Sympathize. Every answer you give holds weight so answer wisely. This is you as a piece of meat. This is you during the jury selection process. This is you experiencing voir dire. Mooooo….

IV. Time:

Time runs slow the day you are called for jury duty. Like my mother trying to figure out how to use the DVR slow. Like an overweight tortoise with a bum leg slow. Nothing can be done about this. Visualize the day as a spinning circle on your computer screen, thwarting your attempts to stream the latest episode of Mad Men or Bojack Horseman after a trying day at the office. Most likely the Judicial Branch has its own Advanced Research Program and their scientists have invented the ability to control the passage of time. They’ve probably embedded the quantum technology in the moulding around the doorways to the massive jury waiting room. Accept this fact. Surrender to the flow. As Steve Miller sang: Time keeps on ticking, ticking, into the future. Don’t fret, make use of your idle time. Strike up a conversation. Call an old friend. Count the number of floor tiles around you. Hatch your plan for world domination. Search for Illuminati symbolism within the architecture. This can’t last forever. All things, even the jury selection process, must come to an end.

V. Am I exempt?

Are you a US citizen? Can you speak English? Do you understand the language well-enough to carry on an adult conversation? Yes? Well then, congratulations! You meet the basic qualifications to be considered for serving on a jury. Jury duty’s status as an eternal thorn in our society’s side is well-deserved. For one thing, it’s inescapable. Like getting braces when you’re eleven and just discovering girls and then realizing girls don’t like guys with braces. So, it’s no surprise that so many people try to get out of jury duty. I mean, people come prepared for this! It’s impressive. It makes you wonder if they put this much effort into getting out of jury duty what they could do for Lady Justice if they actually served. Granted, there will be people there with legitimate grievances (primary caregiver to a young child or loved one, handicap, financial hardship) but there will be just as many people grasping at straws. For instance, the heavyset woman with the Winnie the Pooh denim jacket wildly pointing at a blank piece of paper while the jury clerk shakes his head and politely asks her to sit back down. Or the tall, flannel-shirted guy with an uncomfortable number of piercings pointing to his anarchy tattoo’s as if they were a badge that offered him safe passage through these Judicial Lands. Or the frail, elderly woman slowly collapsing into herself with age, rattling off a litany of obviously-fake ailments as a stunned jury clerk struggles to get a word in. Sit back and marvel as these people queue up at the front podium and the jury clerk passes judgement on the validity of their excuses.

It’s an interesting question though, whether there are people out there who actually want to serve on a jury because let’s face it, it’s hard to get anyone to do anything without some basic level of compensation. My gut tells me “No,” but if reality television has taught me anything, this world is filled with crazy, eccentric and unique individuals just looking for attention. People that would feel right at home on an episode of Bravo’s Real Jurors of New York City. Or Lifetime’s Sequestered Housewives of Atlanta. It’s quite possible that some of the men and women sitting around you when you are called to serve are legitimately curious about jury duty. Maybe their life is an utter bore and they’d welcome the possibility to upset their routine? Or maybe they relish the opportunity to get out of work, or away from their partner, sibling, family member, pet goldfish, etc?

Here’s the way I see it, if you are able to lie and get away with it then good. Serving isn’t for everyone. The majority of us do it reluctantly. But if you lie and get caught, then bad for you. Being in contempt of court is no joke. You will go directly to jail. The decision is yours to make obviously, but you have been warned. Some may argue that the jury system falters when good, responsible and active citizens escape their civic duty but I would argue that there are plenty of responsible people to take their place. The juror pool is big. Especially in larger cities. If you are able to fabricate your responses and get away with it then bonus points to you for creativity.

Bonus tip: Generally speaking, if your employer pays for less than half of the number of days you’ll have to serve, on a jury, you have a good chance of being excused. If they pay for more, you might not.

VI. Things to do while waiting for the Jury Duty Selection Process to begin:

  1. Choose a seat. At thirteen rows and approximately twenty-five seats per row, my jury selection room could fit around three-hundred and twenty people. Factor in all the seats in the “Jury Lounge,” which holds an additional thirty seats, and you are talking over three-hundred and fifty people at full capacity. With all these people milling about it’s vital to choose a seat that is comfortable, quiet and out of the way. Personal space is in short supply today. You will most likely be sitting in this seat for a long time so chose wisely. I would recommend a seat in the last row, closest to the wall. By sitting there, you’ve cut in half the potential for having people sitting on either side of you. Additionally, there’s no one behind you. It’s kind of like sitting in the back of the bus growing up but without Billy O’Keefe trying to give you an atomic wedgie or Susie Jenkins blowing bubble gum-scented kisses your way. By sitting in the back corner you send a very strong message that you want to be left alone, leaving it up to you to decide if you want to socialize with your neighbors. That means you’re in control. It’s good to be in control on jury selection day. Bonus: the walls are where the fresh air usually exhausts, from those large horizontal vents. By sitting next to the walls you’ve smartly positioned yourself in the path of unlimited fresh air and a soothing, gentle breeze. In your newly minted role as President Spaceball you can now have all the fresh air you desire. Be sure to feel sorry for the poor bastards who choose to sit front and center. Nothing but expired breaths for them and still air. They’re the ones who will most likely get picked for jury duty anyways. Back seat rules! 
  2. Watch the “Welcome to Jury Duty!” orientation video imagining that at any moment, a Michael Bay level of explosions and robots will lay waste to the mock courtroom and actors. The podiums an Autobot! That stenograph machine is a Decepticon!  You have no legal standing here Megatron!
  3. Be proud that when you walked in you had your eyes open and were paying attention and grabbed one of the Juror Information Cards. How is it possible that so many people walked right past that giant sign that said “Please Take A Juror Information Card Before Entering Juror Room?” Remind yourself about the capacity for Man’s obliviousness.
  4. Snicker at the guy who has to ask around for a pen. You know that guy, right? He’s the one drinking a Redbull at 8:45am and having a bag of Frito’s for breakfast. Be sure to find a guy like this. He’ll be your “go-to” for laughs when the hours start to drag.

VII. Make lists:

Ten o’clock takes exactly thirteen hours to arrive (see Part IV: Time, above). During that time make an assortment of lists in your notebook to pass the hours. Making lists helps. It keeps the mind limber and the people watching is phenomenal.

Number of mohawks in the jury waiting room: 4
Number of hipsters in the jury waiting room: 11
Number of mohawked hipsters in the jury waiting room: 2
Number of actual hawks in the jury waiting room: 0

Number of Asian adult men apparently here with their mothers: 3

Number of men with shaved heads: 18
Number of men hiding their baldness by shaving their head: 4
Number of men with shaved heads and Tom Selleck mustaches: 2

Number of people who realized that they were in the wrong room an hour and a half into orientation and did not have a red juror card marked September 30th, 2014: 5!

Number of people currently sleeping around me: 8

Number of people showing up at least an hour late to the Jury Selection Process: 42
Number of people showing up at least two hours late to the Jury Selection Process: 13!!

Number of older, pony-tailed men wearing a Members Only jacket: 2

Number of people reading Fifty Shades of Grey: 3

Number of people knitting something: 2

Number of people playing a videogame on their smartphone with the volume all the way up: 1
Number of people giving this person dirty looks: 10….and counting

Number of people here with the same last name as me (so far): 3

VIII. Quick laughs: 

Pause to snicker at the kid who has to keep asking to borrow a pen.

IX. Transference

Is there anything worse than jury duty? Of course the answer is “Yes.” But after being herded into a windowless room with a crush of strangers for an unknown period of time this fact is difficult to comprehend. Remind yourself that even though it may seem so, things really aren’t that bad. There were six flat screen televisions mounted high-up on featureless columns that supported the roof of the juror waiting room I was stuck in. On it played a Congressional committee hearing with the sound off. Even without the sound I could see that Julia Person, the now former Director of the Secret Service, was getting raked over the coals by the Senators before her. This became my place that was worse than jury duty. Try and find a place where people are suffering worse than you are. Transference, the action of redirecting one’s feelings onto others, helps sometimes and the television’s with their 24 hour cable news cycles are a fertile source for material. For instance, being a guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski….worse than jury duty. Or getting shot in the face by Vice President Dick Cheney while quail hunting…worse than jury duty. You get the idea.

X. Post-complaining:

If there’s one thing that binds us all together as we perform our “civic duty,” it’s complaining. We have all been grounded and are being told what to do by adults who somehow hold sway over our future. Rarely, do people want to do something without a clear understanding of its intentions. Of what it is going to do for “them.” It is difficult to see how something that has so much potential to upset the rhythms of our lives is acting in our best-interests. Sure, you are more than free to complain about the fact that you have to appear for jury duty and most likely in the lead-up to your day of service you will, but why not consider what lies beyond all that complaining? Once you are able to push past the fact that you are being called to serve no matter what, and are under the threat of fines or possibly jail if you refuse, it’s possible that you could find the entertainment value in being surrounded by so many strangers in an unfamiliar setting. Imagine the muscled motorcycle guy three rows up from you with the black t-shirt that has “fuck da police” written across its back standing up and suddenly reciting poetry. Or envision the two lawyers standing before you as go through voir dire wearing skeleton costumes and playing a rib-cage xylophone. Or imagine the defense is sleeping with the prosecution and you are the only one who knows. Then the whole experience of being vetted to serve on a jury suddenly become this big sexual conspiracy and only you hold the power. This is an opportunity to let your mind go wild. Have fun, but don’t overdo it because you also need to pay attention. The last thing you want to do is answer “Yes,” to a question like: Do you think you’d be able to be impartial if chosen to serve? That kinda talk is music to a lawyers ears.

XI. Lunch: 

It’s eleven thirty and you’re getting hungry. Lunch is far enough off that you can’t get excited about it yet. Clif Bars are delicious and a perfect snack for bridging a hurried breakfast and a one o’clock lunch. But only the Sierra Trail Mix flavor. All the others ones are crap. Do an internet search for possible lunch options while you enjoy your snack. You’ll get an hour or so to eat so go big. For me it was Shake Shack. Lunch was delicious and if you do your research well, it could be for you as well. When lunch break finally arrives take the time to enjoy it. Don’t wolf it down like you do at work. Remember, you are not at work. This is like a micro-vacation that lasts only one hour. It will be the highlight of your day. Find a good seat, preferably one with a nice window, and use the time to people watch, pondering the lives of the myriad faces as they pass you by. Consider what these people do in their lives. Wonder what their dreams are. What their ambitions may be as they stride rapidly down the avenue or what they may want for the ones that they love. Do all this and in between eat your delicious lunch. Eat. Watch. Ponder. Repeat.

XII. Security: 

Once you finish your lunch it will be time to get back in line to go through security to enter the courthouse. Find humor in the woman in the pink puffy coat with all the silver buttons as she walks through the metal detector oblivious to what may be setting it off. Laugh at all the people who cannot fathom that they have to take their belt off and empty their pockets even though every single one of the people in front of them had to do the same. Marvel at the young woman who seems to be carrying her whole life in her shoulder bag and at how she “forgot” there was a pocket knife in her giant make-up kit.

XIII. Killing time:

By the time everyone who hasn’t been picked yet for a jury returns to the waiting room after lunch it’s starting to get on in the afternoon. People seem to be moving slower as their food hits their bloodstream and the tedium of the day begins to weigh them down. There will arise a few more opportunities for you to be called back into those tiny rooms to again share your feelings with complete strangers, but most likely the majority of the cases for the day have found their jurors. If you do get called later in the day, make sure you are still on your A-game. Remember: be verbal if you want out of service. Make it known if you have any objections. Don’t stay quiet because the quiet ones are the ones who are more likely to get picked. Hopefully, if you were smart enough about your answers during voir dire, you haven’t been chosen and were entered back into the jury pool. This is an excellent time to stream Netflix as the day winds down because the odds of you being called again are slim. Plus there’s free WiFi. Fold your coat up and turn it into a nice little pillow. Slouch down in your chair and make yourself comfortable. Appropriate show to watch? Law & Order of course.

XIV. Dismissed. 

Jury duty is definitely an eye-opener. If you can make it through this period of time without being selected then you are free to go home and resume your life. Have you ever wondered aloud or to yourself how stupid people can be? Jury duty is like spending ten hours getting that question answered for you over and over again. There is a lot for us potential jurors to learn, more than television or our parents or our teachers ever taught us and the education process starts the minute you arrive in the waiting room. But there’s also a lot that I’d like to forget. At four o’clock on an early fall afternoon, I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court and came to terms with the fact that I was a bad citizen who wanted to get out of jury duty. I admit it. But it worked, and while I was there I tried to make the best of it. Hopefully, you can too. See you back there in eight years.

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