My run-in with the law was a short, procedural affair. I got my first ever jury summons a couple of weeks ago and like most people, I immediately thought "oh, drag." Since I was listed as a back-up or whatever it is they call the people who probably won't have to actually go down to the courthouse, I wasn't too concerned about the whole thing figuring I'd be off the hook. So I called at about 1 AM the morning of the day I had to be there and much to my surprise, the one group of alternates that was required to show up, was mine.
Once I got over the shock of having to wake up in six hours and find my way to the courthouse, I was actually pretty excited to be a part of the judicial process. Unlike voting, being a juror seems like a tangible civic duty: one that you can really see the result of or affect some sort of small change in the community. As it turns out, the process is highly beuraucratic and involves lots of numbers and lines and waiting, but it's still something I wanted to experience first-hand.
My first thought upon sitting down with my "Kiss Me, I'm a Juror" sticker was "wow, they really got a cross-section of people up in here." And they did. The random select process seems to be working just fine, as there was a steady stream of peopel coming in in all sorts of colors, sizes, shapes, genders, and apparent backgrounds. Of course the downside to this meant that the guy two people in front of me in line was dressed in his Roca Wear sweats and sneakers, didn't have an ID, had moved to "a new crib," and had little to no understanding of the idea of faxing in proof that he wasn't able to serve in the Fulton County court. The woman at the desk spoke in a slow, deliberate voice the way you give instructions to a child who isn't listening: "W r i t e y o u r n a a a a m e a n d y o u r n e e e w w w a d d r e s s o n a p i e c e o f p a a a a p e r..." I was instantly aware of why I don't have a job like that. I have little to no patience for people who are wilfully ignorant of seemingly everything. Homeboy didn't even bring HIS ID! To COURT!!!! Anyway, there was also a guy next to me who was written up in Atlanta magazine as one of Georgia's top international legal counsel's, so that right there is your diversity.
I had resisted bringing a gameboy or laptop because I didn't know the protocol and figured they would frown on that sort of thing. I didn't bring my phone either because I was sure they would be zapped out of people's hands by phone-hunting lazers upon sight, but it seems that no number of announcements about not using phones in the juror room are enough to keep people from chatting like there's no tomorrow at 8 am. Who gets calls on their cell phone at 8 am that are like "Hey, what's up?" Man. So I bought a paper and reminded myself why I don't read the paper--it's got no style. Finally they called me up and I was all excited to be the dude who pulls a 12 Angry Men on everyone. But it was not to be.
The case was maybe the most dull thing to wich I could have been attached. Maybe if it were a dispute over trucking sawdust across county lines without a permit or something, THAT might have been more boring, but as it was, a dispute over roofing work done by a contractor wasn't quite what I had in mind. The Jury selection process, for those not initiated, goes something like this:
- They ask about twice the number of people they will need to come in a room and swear to tell the truth. In a State court case like I was called for, they need six Jurors, so they had 14 of us in there. We lined up by numbers, sat down by numbers, and amazingly the judge and lawyers had all our names on little printouts and knew where we went to school and if we were married.
- Next, everyone gets asked a series of redundant questions that had already been asked on the forms for signing up, and a lot of other questions that no one would be stupid enough to answer 'yes' to if they were already in the room. "Do you have a mental disability that would prevent you from being an effective juror?" Anyway, there are some other general questions about if you are related to anyone in the case, if you have an interest in the case's outcome, all sorts of things to make sure you can stay impartial.
- Moving on, the questions get more focused and come from the lawyers instead of the judge. Apparently same lawyers still consider themselves "LOY-YERS" even after having been through law school instead of "loy school," so that was an eye-opener. The lawyers ask questions to the whole group relating to background and experiences that might show a bias one way or the other in the case. For someone like me, this is interesting because I'm constantly thinking past the questions to why they might be asking these questions. Keep in mind, we know virtually nothing about the case at this point, but it's possible to pull a little mental picture of the case together based on these questions. "Do you have a problem with lawyers?" "Have you ever had a roof put on your house?" "Do you own your own business?" etc. We all answered in the affirmative when that applied by raising hands. Follow up is stage three.
- In the final round, which I will NOT call the "Speed Round" because it was terribly slow and drawn out, the questions are essentially follow-ups based on responses to the second set of general questions. These questions are asked individually so with 14 people in the room, we all got 14 little condensed life stories. Thankfully this was a case about a roofing contract and not an injury sustained in the use of a sex toy. Round three could get pretty ugly. For us, it was a lot of follow ups about roofs, contracting, homeowner associations and dull shit that I couldn't really focus on. Almost nothing applied to me, so I had very little to talk about. At the end of Round Three, they sent us into a room for 5 minutes, conferred, then we came back for "The Draft."
The Draft was weird. The whole time, I'm thinking that the stated purpose of this process is to render the most impartial, fair jury. The whole system is banking on an impartial jury, which in this case would mean people with no hangups about contracting, construction, and roofs and lawyers. So the court attendant guy hands one of the "loyers" a sheet of paper that's like a draft grid or NCAA bracket for the potential jury. That guy gets to pick his team, or maybe he's cancelling out the team he doesn't want, then he hands it to the other lawyer. He does the same, then passes it back, and this happens about four or five times until they've whittled 14 down to six. I imagine that at this point, it's just a power play between the counsels, each trying to kick off the island the people that he sees as most threatening to his case. With that in mind, the whole idea that this is the most impartial jury seems to get tossed out the window. It winds up being the jury that each side will allow the other to pick, which in our case was bewildering.
There were a handful of relatively neutral people--people for whom there were no real follow-ups or in-depth questions about background. These people seemed to have the least experience with or feelings about the situation at hand. This, to me, would have been the ideal jury--one that didn't have their mind made up about any part of this situation based on a previous experience. There were of course people with a lot more at stake--people who worked in construction/contracting, real estate, were presidents of homeowner associations, or were lawyers themselves. So who wound up on the jury of all stars?
Out of the two lawyers in the jury pool, one got picked as a finalist. Congrats! Apparently it's a professional courtesy to let fellow "Loyers" off the jury hook, but not this time! The other lawyer got out of it because he was a very important man, and probably intimidated both of the younger guys trying this trivial case. The guy with 30 years of construction experience? IN! The lady who had problems with her homeowner's association? IN! The woman who was retired and who didn't appear to have more than a junior high education because she didn't answer any of the questions with much of a reasonable response? IN! At this point, I was thoroughly confused. Why didn't I get in? Did they just start from the lowest number and not need to pick any by the time they got to 12? Was it my story about my parents having a problem putting up a basketball goal because of the busybody homeowners? Was it the fact that I've never owned a home? Was it the beard? Yeah, it was probably the beard.
So I left with a better understanding of the legal system, half a day off from work, and I get a check for $25 sometime in the future for my troubles. I just hope I never get sued.