Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Runaway Juror

For 28 years since my graduation from law school, one of my desires in life has been to serve on a jury. In law school, we were taught that the jury trial is one of the pillars of our democracy. We were left with the impression that a jury is to be held in awe and that the process of 12 people coming to a decision about a fellow citizen is a sociological amazement. Books have been written about the jury, plays have been staged and movies have been made.

Serving on a jury is not only a civic duty but we should all consider it a privilege. Those people who consider themselves to be patriots and those folks who claim this is the greatest nation in the world and who fly the American flag should jump with joy when they encounter the jury summons in the mailbox. As a matter of fact, a month ago when I opened my mailbox and saw the jury summons for Snohomish County Superior Court, I squealed with delight. My daughter dryly responded that she was certain I was the only person in the entire United States who was happy to open that envelope.

September 24th was my appearance date. A phone number was included to check on reporting instructions. I won't go into the part where I then lost my jury summons and had to call the courthouse where many people know me as an attorney to get another one. Damn dog who grabs and chews up any envelope that falls on the floor! Nevertheless, I received another summons in the mail and followed the directions.

"Twelve Angry Men" flashed before my eyes. What an opportunity I was going to have. I would get to witness the mystery of the jury first hand. Immediately, I filled out the return form and boldly marked "yes" and "no," skipping the parts that tell you how to postpone or get out of it altogether. I called the phone number after 5 PM last Friday and the recording told me I did not need to report on Monday. I called the number several times just to make sure I heard correctly. On Monday after 5 PM, I called again and was instructed to report by 8:15 on Tuesday morning. YES! I was so excited that I did not sleep well Monday night.

Of course, I know where the courthouse is. As an arbitrator, I go there every couple of months to file my decisions in the Clerk's office and upstairs in the Arbitration Department. The security guard familiar with my face commented with a grin as I went through the metal detector, "So, you are here for jury duty this morning?"

"Indeed, I am," I responded.

As soon as I sat down in the jury assembly room, I realized I had forgotten my book. The instructions specifically recommended bringing reading material for the long waits. Oh well, I noted the law library was right around the corner. The room rapidly filled with about 200 Snohomish County residents and we were given yet another form about ourselves to complete. From my experience, I knew the forms would soon be in some attorney's hot little hand as he or she quickly reviewed them to determine who they might or might not like to be on their jury. I made sure that my printing went clear through to all layers.

I was smiling, but when I looked around the room, I realized that it resembled the DMV and most everybody looked equally thrilled to be here as there. "Don't people realize how important this is? Don't they realize that our system of justice is unrivaled anywhere in the world? New democracies everywhere are trying to duplicate what we have been doing now for over 200 years. Cheer up folks!" I thought to myself. A judge came in to welcome us and he gave us a little pep talk. I wanted to clap but everyone just sat there unimpressed. We were then shown a good video about the consitutional right to a jury trial and what to expect in a sample trial. The bathrooms and the coffee were pointed out and the areas we were not to go. The law library was off limits. "What? This is weird for me. I can't go in the law library? Oh man, I'll have to look at that dog-eared 'Good Housekeeping' on the shelf behind me," silently the thought went through my head. I perused the list of restaurants and lunch spots we received with our packet to pass the time.

This is the Pacific Northwest so most everyone in the room was jazzed up on coffee and not talking to one another. I couldn't contain myself so I engaged the young woman sitting next to me in conversation. "I hope they give us a bathroom break soon! I have had my morning coffee." I knew she would agree because she had her big Starbuck's cup in hand. She reflected the general mood of the room by explaining to me she was a social worker and she hated trials and would give anything to not be here. When I explained I had been looking forward to this experience, she had the same look on her face that my daughter did when I opened the mail box that day.

Finally, names and numbers were called and the first 35 people were assigned to a judge and a courtroom. Several more minutes went by and we were told to stay put. By that time, I really needed to use the rest room and I noticed several folks were asking where they could go smoke. The next group of potential jurors were called and I was number three. The minute I got my number, I was allowed to go to the bathroom. "Whew! Ok, good for the day. I am READY to do my duty as a citizen." The young woman sitting with me was number nine and we were called out in the hallway to line up and proceed to the courtroom. My heart was thumping. I was having fun.

Numbers 1 through 12 including number 3, me, were seated in the jury box. "Wow. After all of these years, here I am in this spot. After all of the wondering. Here I am. Here I am." The plaintiff's attorney and the plaintiff were seated at the near table and the defense attorney and the defendant were at the far table. And yes, the forms we had filled out were right there on the tables next to the yellow legal pads. "All rise." The robed judge took his place at the high desk. He welcomed us and the clerk swore us in. The judge then proceeded to explain what type of case we were about to hear and he introduced the attorneys.

My heart sunk. Thud. The case was probably an appeal from the type of arbitrations I handle---a rear-end car collision with contested injuries. "BLAH! No, no, no, this cannot be. Where was the thrilling murder trial of my dreams?" Not only that but the defense attorney had appeared before me in an arbitration in nearly an identical case a few months ago. When the judge asked if any of us knew the attorneys, I had to raise my hand and explain. Frankly, I did not remember the particular details and whether I had given her an unfavorable decision or not so I honestly answered the judge affirmatively when he asked if I could still be an impartial juror.

The voir dire process or questioning of the jury went on for about 45 minutes. They asked about experiences with chiropractors and car accidents. The potential jurors both in the box and in the pews were more than willing to discuss their medical ailments and injuries. It was fascinating. I listened intently noting how the attorneys were trying to be persuasive of their positions with their questions. I knew my time was about up. I knew too much to be on this jury. I know their tricks. The plaintiff's attorney attempted to challenge a juror for cause and the judge denied it. The cause challenge is like a motion and the attorney has to give a reason why he believes the juror is biased in some way. Such challenges are tough and they can alienate the entire jury pool if done insensitively. I thought he made a mistake with that particular challenge. The next step was the peremptory challenge procedure. During this time, each attorney has the chance to knock off jurors without giving a reason. They usually pick people they think will be unfavorable to their side.

Boom. There it was. The plaintiff's attorney kicked off his choice. Then the defense attorney said the words I knew were coming, "The defense would like to exercise its first peremptory challenge and excuse juror number three."

"Thank you for serving. Please return your juror badge number to the basket behind the plaintiff's attorney," instructed the judge. Out of the courtroom I walked, alone. It wasn't even lunch time yet. Geez! At least I knew my way back to the jury assembly room.

The jury assembly room was empty except for the woman the plaintiff's attorney ousted. At the jury coodinator's desk, I stated with disappointment, "I got peremptoried." She scanned my badge without comment and told me I was free to go.

Last night before I went to bed, I called the jury hotline one last time for the recording. "This is the jury hotline for Tuesday, September 25th. If you were not seated on a jury today, you are permanently excused. Those of you on a jury panel need to return to the court.........." I hung up the phone.

That was it. It was over.

My jury experience--permanently peremptoried.