I was cleaning up my office today, riffling through a stack of papers, as yet unsorted, perhaps to be filed, perhaps to be tossed. This, like re-arranging the spice rack, is a favorite mode of procrastination, near and dear to the hearts of every writer. Sometimes, however, it also serves as a means of inspiration, especially if you serendipitously come across some scrap or memento about which you can then write. Such was my luck today. With dinnertime fast approaching, and not yet a written a word for today’s posting (not even an inkling of a topic), I came across a half-sheet of green paper with printing that slanted downward toward the right
For some reason (probably the instincts of a pack-rat journalist), I had saved my Certification of Jury Service, along with two tri-panel brochures – “Trial Juror’s Handbook” and the “Where-to guide for Jurors on their lunch hour in Downtown L.A.” – a page titled Juror Orientation and a Notice to Jurors Regarding Postponement, Financial Hardship and Possible Service at Other Courts. Now I remember. I was going to write about this. Why? Because when the day was over I was surprised to find myself actually looking forward to being called again, and slightly disappointed that it would be at least a year before that summons would come. You’re surprised? So was I.
In Los Angeles, you are notified of the week that you must be available, but you get to phone in each evening to see if you are needed the next day. If you are not needed, you do not go in, and if you do have to go in but are not appointed to a jury that day, you are excused from service until your next summons a year or more later. In short, unless you begin a trial, you never have to spend more than one day in the court house.
The first night I had called in to find that I need not report the next day. I congratulated myself on my decision to not try and extricate myself from serving – a decision based not on any desire to serve, but on my own conviction that nothing would be happening in the court house during the week between Christmas and New Year. I was wrong. The next evening a recorded voice informed me of my 7:45 AM call time. The weather was predicting major storms and, given the fact that rain was already coming down in sheets, there was no room for doubt or hope.
The drive into downtown on the oldest freeway in Los Angeles, a narrow curvaceous ribbon with lots of flood-prone dips, was truly terrifying, even at fifteen miles per hour. After puddle-jumping through the three blocks from parking lot to court house, placing my soaking wet belongings on the security scanner conveyor belt, and following the crowd down long hallways to and from the elevators, I took a seat in the Jury Assembly Room. No one wanted to be there and everyone knew it.
The orientation spiel was well-scripted. By now they know exactly what to tell you, and they answer all the questions one might have before anyone needs to ask. Then, one of the judges came in to address the prospective jury pool. He was extremely dapper, wearing a three-piece suit that looked more like a frock coat than a banker’s suit. He asked how many of us were happy to be there, and two people raised their hands. (At least we were an honest bunch.) Then he asked how many of us believed in the right to a trial by a jury of ones peers; of course everyone raised their hands and his point was made. He then spent a few minutes actually thanking us for being there. That’s when my attitude, and the attitude of many others, began to change. Judge Frockcoat has made a very positive impression.
Around 10 AM, a disembodied voice called thirty-five names, including mine, and sent us up to Department 126. The bailiff came out to give us juror numbers and ask us to wait in the hall. We had been told that the case was expected to last two days (not counting jury selection or deliberations), and by this time I was psyched – properly prepped and primed to do my civic duty. I had already figured out how to postpone whatever other obligations I had for the rest of the week and next. And I was not the only one who was now eager to be impaneled. But after about fifteen minutes, the judge himself, still robed, came into the hallway to tell us the lawyers had just settled, and then he thanked us for being there ready to serve.
I spent the next hour and a half listening to a disgruntled retired schoolteacher, chatting with a building contractor, and solving puzzles. No, this is not some writerly metaphoria; the Assembly Room was well-stocked with 5000+ piece jigsaw puzzles that not only helped to pass the time, but also rekindled my love for a childhood pastime. Mercifully, the rain abated and, we were granted a ninety-minute lunch break. Having been provided with schedules for the twenty-five cent Dash buses and maps to shops, restaurants and sites that would do a visitor’s bureau proud, we dispersed to eat in China Town, shop in the jewelry district, and visit the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles.
Two more juries were selected after lunch, but my name was not called. Shortly after 4 PM the voice let us know that we could go home. I traded in my badge for the green certificate, and headed for home. I was disappointed that we were not needed, and pleasantly surprised by both of the judges I had encountered.
So what I wanted to know was, are all judges like that? I have a friend from college who is now a
criminal court judge, so I inquired by email:
Do they teach you to be so nice and polite to jurors in judge-training? I ask mostly tongue-in-cheek, but there is a part of me that really thought judges were to be feared (yourself not included, of course), much in the same way as we fear the police. I even noticed a good feeling among the courthouse staff, a camaraderie that I thought was a figment of TV’s imagination a la Judging Amy. So what do you think, is this the norm?
My judge wrote back at great length, ending with:
To sum it up, I would say what you experienced is becoming the norm. We are told at the judicial college that wearing the robe and just dictating won’t work today, you have to have a viable means of interacting with the public, which I’m glad about. With that said, however, we still have to maintain judiciousness and judicial authority, except that now, hopefully, the public will have enough information to respect, understand and accept the system…. One of the things I enjoy most about the position is the juror participation and my opportunity to interact with them. It’s the system at work.
Enough said. Court is adjourned.