Undue diligence: jury duty

BY MELINDA MCLELLAN

courtroom.jpg

I’m one of those geeks who was excited to get a summons for jury duty. I really was. I got it in July, and, at the time, October 13th sounded like a long way off. I had just been complaining to someone that I’d never gotten called for jury duty, and I probably never would, and even if I did, I wouldn’t get to serve because I’m a lawyerite and they’d strike me. Not a week later I got my little notice from the Commonwealth. I was practically giddy.

When I told people about my upcoming jury duty I got reactions of sympathy bordering on pity. “Can’t you get out of it? You’re a Harvard Law student!” I reject this concept on multiple levels. First, we should be some of the most well motivated people when it comes to serving on a jury – to see the process in action, to get a taste of being on the other side of the courtroom, and really, to bring unique qualifications to bear on this particular civic duty. Second, we’re not more important than any other citizen who’s missing class or work, in fact, as I mentioned in a previous column, missing class isn’t even that big of a deal.In any case, I didn’t want to get out of it. Good thing, too, because you can’t get out of at least showing up in person on your assigned day. You can get a deferral, and I suppose I could have tried to defer until I had moved out of the jurisdiction at the end of the school year, but that sounds, I don’t know… unethical.

Of course, by the time last Wednesday actually rolled around I had virtually no interest in going. I had to report to some courthouse in West Newton at 8:30 in the morning. I had no idea how to get to West Newton, and asking friends for directions got me nowhere. Pretty much everyone responded with something like, “Newton? Do you have a car? No? Man, that’s gonna SUCK.”

It turns out there is a bus pretty much directly from downtown to the courthouse, and I got there on time. Not that it mattered much since I was one of only three people to get there on time, but it somehow renewed my flagging faith in the MBTA. I went into a room, turned in some paperwork, filled out a little card declaring my ethnicity, and waited.

The rest of the jury pool was straight out of central casting. I couldn’t have imagined up a more jury-looking group of thirty people. Someone should’ve taken a photo for use in an elementary school Civics textbook. The funny thing was that most of them seemed to know each other and the court officers who were running the show. That’s small town America, I guess. It was oddly charming in a Mayberry-meets-Twilight Zone sort of way.

The officer handling our paperwork told us that they had recently spent millions renovating this courthouse, and we were all really lucky because one used to have to go all the way out to Cambridge, but now jury service is right there in West Newton. Yes, thank goodness I didn’t have to go all the way out to bloody Cambridge. It was so much better having to be on the T by 7.

As we were waiting, another prospective juror struck up a little conversation with me, presumably because I was an outsider.

Him: “What do you do for a living?”Me: “I’m a student.”Him: “What do you study?”Me: “I’m a law student, actually.”Him: “Oh really? Where do you go to school?”Me: “Harvard.”Him: (chuckling) “Legally blonde, eh? Heh heh heh heh.”

Good grief. Really, that movie did no favors for blonde female HLS students. I can’t decide if it’s insulting or flattering or what. I mean, the character was a pretty, cute, likeable girl. She was “spunky.” She had “heart.” On the other hand, she was kind of dumb and superficial. Anyway, my experience has been that people just cannot help but make reference to that movie when they find out where I go to school. This guy would’ve gotten along smashingly with all the jokers who ask after the welfare of Toto when I tell them I’m from Kansas.

We watched a little video on jury duty, narrated by Margaret Marshall. I thought the video was pretty well done, actually. It explained everything you’d need to know about the process without going over anyone’s head. The officer in charge came back in the room and blatantly name-dropped the fact that he’s met Margaret Marshall and she’s a “really cool lady.” He informed us that he was going to make the day as painless as possible, and that many of us would be done by noon, except any and all Yankee fans would most definitely be impaneled for the entire day.

Then the judge came in to talk to us. She too was a “really cool lady.” She told us what was going on, that they only do criminal cases in this court, that the lawyers were pleading out a few of the cases, that we’d probably only have to serve for a day (if that), and that she’s served before herself and it’s actually educational and interesting. I was starting to feel like a VIP with all this attention. Does the judge always go meet the jury pool?For the two hours that followed we sat quietly. I read all my assigned readings for seminar this week. Meanwhile, the young guy sitting next to me read Auto Hunter magazine. I use the term “read” casually, since there aren’t even the barest of articles in Auto Hunter. It’s just solid advertisements for cars. When the bailiff came in and said we’d be starting in about 20 minutes so we should “finish up our books,” Auto Hunter sighed deeply and impatiently declared, “I’ve already read this three times.” I wanted to nominate him foreman.

Finally we went into the courtroom. The charges were read, the attorneys introduced themselves, we met both of the potential witnesses, we swore to discharge our duties impartially, and the judge read off a litany of things that might disqualify us.

When she asked if anyone wanted to make a comment or ask a question, no one did. No one tried to get out of being impaneled. She asked again if there was anything that might render us partial to one side or the other. Everyone shook their head no, though I wondered silently if the fact that the Assistant D.A. was kind of hot would affect my judgment. I decided not. In fact, it probably balanced out my general distrust of prosecutors just enough to make me perfectly impartial. And now I really wanted to hear the case.

The defendant had been charged with operating a motor vehicle while his license was suspended. But he had stipulated to the fact that the license had been suspended, and that he had notice of the suspension. So the only question of fact was going to be whether or not he operated the vehicle. This seemed to me a rather binary issue, but apparently the term “operate” leaves much to be discussed. I kind of couldn’t believe tax dollars and jurors’ time and other judicial resource whatnot were going to be used to resolve this issue, but so long as they were, I wanted in.

I was juror 4, panel 2. They filled the jury box with panel 1 and started the process of questioning. As the lawyers approached the judge, she turned on some sort of white noise machine that filled the courtroom with what sounded like soft TV static so that they could have “privacy” in sidebar. Neither law school nor David E. Kelley had prepared me for that little bit of technology and it made me giggle.

I thought since I was on panel 2 I might have a shot of actually being on the jury. No dice. When they got rid of someone from panel 1, they replaced him or her with someone from panel 9. No fair. Auto Hunter made it on the jury, but I did not. It was terribly anticlimactic for me to be dismissed before noon for being superfluous.

At a bare minimum I wanted to be the subject of a strike. I don’t know why, but I like the idea of being considered a threat to one side or the other. Actually, I guess I just like the sound of it. What a great legal term. I want a t-shirt that says “Peremptorily Struck.” Like I said, I’m a geek.

Melinda McLellan is a 3L, and at some point her column will actually pertain to myths about Harvard Law School. Promise.

Comments