Jury Duty!


The very phrase "jury duty" often sends the average person into a fit of anger, stress, despondence, and fear. And why not? Most of us are busy enough trying to live life, work our jobs, care for our families, and get by. Jury duty intrudes upon things we'd rather do or have to do in order to survive. A long stretch of jury service can even impact our relationships.

However, as citizens, we are told it is our "civic duty" to serve on juries, or at least be available for service when called. Besides, if we don't show up, the Sheriff is likely to come find us and bring us to court!

There are many elaborate schemes and theories on how to "avoid" jury service. Some people actually believe them. The simple fact is, everyone has to serve and most people, despite prior plans to "act crazy" or "say stupid things," tend to tell the truth, act reasonably, and behave in a way that might get them chosen to serve.

The popular assumption is that practicing lawyers are exempt from jury service. This is not, however, the case. We lawyers get called for jury service just like everyone else. It is just as inconvenient for us as it is for anyone else.

I received jury service summons several times over the years. Once was for Federal Court. It was an old address, so once they figured out I was no longer eligible under the new address, I was dismissed without so much as a question asked.

Another time, about eight years ago or so, I was brought into a courtroom. The moment I saw where we were going it occurred to me that I have had cases before this particular judge, and we have not always gotten along famously. Sure enough, after a break, I was one of those excused quickly and unceremoniously.

This time was in January 2015, just a few weeks ago. With a busy solo practice, it was incredibly inconvenient for me. I'm the kind of person who hates having even one unanswered email in the inbox, so you can imagine what a day (or more) out of the office does to my already tightly-wound psyche.

Fortunately, my summons was for the Daley Center, where I spend almost all of my court time. It is a place I have more or less "lived" at for the past two and a half decades.

For those who have not been to a courthouse in awhile, as with many public buildings, entrance requires scanning in a metal detector, emptying of pockets, and other things similar to airport security. Due to my status as a lawyer, a simple flash of my ID granted me entry into the building in seconds. Soon, I was on my way to the 17th floor jury room, which is a vast, long room with long desks taking up nearly every available space. There are a few vending machines, as well as some ancient relics known as pay phones. I actually saw people using them.

I checked in, handed in my jury questionnaire, received a piece of paper with a "jury panel number (mine was 6)," and sat down. For me, this was prime time to get to work, as I immediately paged through my phone and I-pad, worked through emails, and made a list of phone calls to make. We were told we could make "quiet" calls over by the pay phones, so I simply brought a legal pad and my phone over there and set up shop.

At some point, they announced, in a muffled, CTA-like intercom voice, that they were presenting a video on jury service. Instantly, at ear-splitting volume, all the televisions suspended from the ceiling tuned to a Lester Holt narrated video about jury service. Granted, this was Lester from the days when Stefan probably was still working on his ABCs, as dad had his dark moustache and lots of dark hair. It had to be at least 20 years old. Fortunately, it was short. They then announced that all televisions on one side of the room would be tuned to ABC, while the other side of the room would remain quiet. I moved to the quiet side.

After a good hour and a half, despite hearing several other panel numbers called, I was still there. The room was stiflingly hot (why do we heat public buildings to 78 degrees?), I had virtually nothing to do that I hadn't already accomplished, and I was already dreading how much longer it would take to be called. Even if I was excused quickly, the day was wasted. I moseyed back over the phone area and checked for messages to my office phone. While I was returning one of them, I overheard a woman talking loudly to someone about how she was moving that weekend and was planning to skip out on the rent and the landlord. These are some of the people who may decide your fate!

It seemed I had been stuck in the room for a day, but a check of the watch confirmed it to have only been about two hours. Finally, shortly after that, and another nervous bathroom visit, they finally called panel 6.

They herded us into elementary school lines, and walked us to the private "jurors only" elevators. Once I saw the floor we were going to, I knew immediately which courtroom we were headed toward. In fact, it was one that I had spent quite a bit of time in over the years, although the judge was relatively new to that room.

We sat down in the gallery rows. I noticed immediately that the plaintiff's attorney was someone I knew. I had even sat as an arbitrator several times on his cases over the years. We knew one another, so I thought I should be excused easily--Not so fast.

For those who watch lawyer shows on television, you probably notice they don't spend any time on the process of picking a jury, or voir dire. There is a great reason for that--it's boring as hell.

Voir Dire is the process of asking questions to choose a jury. There are books and seminars on how to conduct voir dire. There are consultants and experts who make good livings advising lawyers how to get the obtain the best jury possible. In Cook County, it is really specific to the individual room and judge as to how it is done. Some judges let the attorneys do most of the questioning and impose few time limits on the lawyers, while others conduct all of it and do not allow the lawyers any, or a mere token, chance to question potential jurors.

During my last trial, the judge was extremely strict about how he wanted it conducted. He was also incredibly deliberate and mind-numbingly slow about it, so I made a last minute decision to agree to a 6 person jury. (In all cases filed after June 1, 2015, there are to be only 6 person juries, rather than the choice of 6 or 12, and juror pay goes up from the pittance of $17.20 a day in Cook County).

I knew right away this was a case that wouldn't take very long, having deduced the type of case it was from my familiarity with the practice of the plaintiff's attorney. The case, as I correctly deduced, was a subrogation case in which the plaintiff insurance company sues the insurance carrier for the driver who allegedly caused the crash and tries to recover the money it spent on repairing the car of its insured. A very simple, short, and easy trial. I began to think, even if I was picked, I'd be home and done that day.

The judge gave a brief explanation about the nature of the case and the general conduct of voir dire. Then he called the first set of four jurors and began questioning them on some basic things. First, he looked at the juror questionnaires they had each turned in, and, paging through the questions, he would delve a bit deeper. If someone indicated they had been involved in a crime, he would ask what happened, how their experience with the court system went, and the like. He also asked panelists individually if they drove, had ever been in car accidents, and followed up on what they did for a living, their family structures, and confirmed their viewpoints on some general topics.

Then, he handed the cards to the lawyers. The plaintiff's lawyer did not ask any questions, but the defense did ask just a few, most of which revolved around the absence of his client. I knew, with insurance cases like this, it is not uncommon to "lose" clients and have them either not show up to court or not respond to requests that they cooperate with their insurer. To many on the panel, this absence was confounding and confusing. A few said they would have a hard time not holding it against the defense. Clearly, these jurors would be excused by the defense.

After those four were questioned, it was another set of four. Then, it was my turn. And that's when it got interesting. I really figured that there was no way anyone would want a practicing plaintiff's lawyer to decide a case for or against the insurance industry. Then again, that was before we discovered just how "interesting" some of the panelists were.

One gentleman was a self-described "alcoholic, drug addict jazz musician." Oh, and he never learned to drive, which would make a trial involving a car accident a bit of a challenge for him. While it seemed admirable that he had long ago kicked all his demons, his responses to questions made for some interesting reactions from the judge and attorneys. There was simply no way they wanted this guy on their jury. He was a loose cannon for a variety of reasons. Most trial lawyers try to shy away from people who talk a bit too openly about personal demons. While we love establishing a rapport with potential jurors, there tends to be a flashing red light when members of the venire share a bit too freely. It is usually a sign they are a bit hard to control or a bit off socially, and we usually avoid them. That made me more desirable. Crap.

One of the people on my four person panel was, to put it mildly, a bit wacky. She started things off by using profanity when addressing the judge. No, she didn't call him names, and clearly didn't mean to be offensive, but it seems common sense that using four letter words in a courtroom is not proper. Or I'm just an old fuddy duddy. She got odder as she described her profession (a personal trainer who advocated cleanses). When the judge pointed out that there were differing opinions on the validity of cleanses and asked her if they worked, rather than a vanilla response, she stood up to show her taught body and said, "I'm pushing 60 so what do you think?" Yes, she was more or less hitting on the judge. It was weird, and most of those assembled did their best to avert eyes, cover mouths, and overall give the impression we were not laughing or weirded out, despite the fact that we were. Again, things were not looking good for me. If two jurors out of twelve already looked like peremptory challenges come to life, I might not be so bad after all.

The lawyers followed up their questioning of us, and when I was called, it was pointed out that I knew the plaintiff's attorney, had cases pending against the insurance company he represented, but admitted that I could be impartial if chosen.

Shortly after that, the lawyers met with the judge, decided on the final six to serve, and the rest of us were excused. I was free.

While it would have been interesting to have served on a jury, I suppose I will have to wait until next time.

Why is jury duty worthwhile? Without it, we have no way to have "everyday people" "like them" decide their fate. Judges are lawyers by profession. They see things through the prism of their legal training, as do lawyers. Juries consisting of laypeople bring those without legal training into the decision-making, brining with them a completely open and unique perspective.

Juries are random, scattershot, filled with people with little knowledge of the legal system, deciding the fortunes and fates of those they do not know and know nothing about. It is a tedious and time-sapping system, costing many jurors endless hours from jobs, family, hobbies, and resulting in very little recompense. Yet without such a random and imperfect system, we have a rather elitist legal system. Our system lets everyday people decide the fates and fortunes of everyday people. Maybe that is what makes our system so incredibly cool.