JURY DUTY

 

Copyright 2000, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)

 

Irritable, sleepless, I arrived at 9 a.m. for jury duty, took the elevator to the fifth floor, and got in line behind dozens of other citizens chosen as fodder for the day's "panel calls." In the distance - about seventy-five feet ahead - a plump woman gave instructions on how to fill out the forms we were supposed to have brought. A lady behind me chatted amiably on her cel phone until a man in front of me turned and said, "Hey, we're trying to hear the instructions!" The lady moved away.

The plump woman walked toward our end of the line and repeated her information. None of it applied to me, as I held a form for those who had requested an economic-hardship release from jury duty and been denied. (I accept jobs on an on-call basis - occasionally at a moment's notice - and I was worried I might lose a nice, juicy contract while idling in the jury room.) The line inched forward as jurors were processed.

Later on I was nearer the front. The plump woman asked to see my paperwork. I showed her the form I'd been sent. She said, "Why don't you fill this out? It requests a review of your hardship denial." Well, I had nothing new to add, and they hadn't bought my first story. But she insisted, so I got out of line and walked back to where a young, pretty lady gave energetic instructions to a small group of fellow beseechers. "Fill out your form and then I'll take it," she said to me, beaming.

The form wanted my name and address - for some reason I had to write that anew on each piece of paper they gave me - and then it demanded the number of adults in the household. I wrote "2" because I live downstairs and my landlady (okay, it's my mom) lives upstairs. Then it wanted to know the total annual income for all adults living there. Well, I have no idea! For one thing, I have a deep reluctance to grill my own mother about her financial affairs. For another, I work freelance and rarely know what my own income is likely to be in a given year. I put a question mark.

There's a test - the "Minnesota Multiphasic" - that asks dozens of multiple-choice questions, and your answers can be analyzed to discern some of your personality traits. Several of the questions are in fact the same query put different ways. The theory is that if you answer it differently each time, you are demonstrably ambivalent and, perhaps, unstable. The problem is that I work with language; if you put the same question differently, I may answer differently. English can be remarkably subtle. So can I. I took that test and the results pegged me as a very uncertain individual.

The next section on the denial-review form asked for "total monthly household expenses." Okay, I rent from my mom, but my utilities are free and I really don't know how her taxes and other bills add up. Again, there's that reticence about nosing around in her business. But I was beginning to get warm, what with my lack of sleep and the increasingly bizarre questions. What on earth did this stuff have to do with my financial situation? What did it matter how much things cost around home, when the hardship involves a plunge in my cash flow? Who cares how much my landlady spends on electricity if I'm forced to kiss off a big job and then can't afford my own groceries? (I'm not kidding: my bank account is so empty it echoes.) Nowhere on the form did it ask, "How much income will you lose while you sit around here waiting to do your civic duty?" Somehow they expect to fathom my situation by comparing household income with expenses; I'm still trying to figure that one out.

I wrote another question mark and handed the form to the pleasant lady, whose i.d. tag said "Tiffany." Tiffany looked at the form. "The judge will dismiss this if you put question marks."

I looked at the form. "I don't know the answers to those questions."

She said, "You have to write something!"

My voice went up a few notes. "I've signed this paper with a promise to tell the truth. You're asking me to lie. Besides, what do these questions have to do with my economic hardship?"

Tiffany looked patient. "I'm sorry, he just won't approve it."

I got cynical. "Okay, then what are the magic words that will make the judge grant my request? You know, what's the right thing to say?"

Tiffany looked pained. "I don't know what he looks for! I'm just an intern. But I go through the forms with him and then he decides."

Oh.

Rather foolishly I blurted, "Great. Already you don't like me, and you have his ear."

Tiffany looked as if she wished I'd disappear. "Look, I'm just here to help."

I stared at her. "I'm not feeling helped."

She handed back my form and smiled thinly. "Go to the office and talk to Cindy."

I trudged down the hall to the office and poked my head in the window. A lady asked, "Can I help you?" I told her I was sent to speak with Cindy about my form. "I'm Cindy. Come around into the office." I walked around the corner and through a door, then stood at the counter. Cindy proceeded to ignore me.

After awhile the plump lady walked in. "Can I help you?" I told her Cindy was supposed to assist me with my form. "I can help you with that." I explained my predicament, noting that I didn't have the financial numbers the form seemed to require. The plump lady said, evenly, "You're supposed to get that information before you come here."

Oh.

I wanted to shout, "YOU told me to fill out that form! Why would I have bothered to research it if I never meant to fill it out?!" Instead I said, "I'm sorry if I'm doing this all wrong. But these forms ask questions that I don't know how to answer truthfully. And they don't seem to apply to my situation. It's frustrating."

Plump Lady said, "They're improving the forms all the time."

I said, "I've done jury duty before, and they haven't gotten better."

Plump Lady replied, "You can always write letters to the court and your assemblyman--"

"Right. A lot of good that will do."

Plump Lady stood her ground. "Well, we're stuck with it. It's why we live in this country."

What, to put up with bureaucracies? I presume she'd meant to give me a quick toot about the virtues of civic responsibility. I was thinking I could probably run rings around her on the rule of law, trial by jury, and the like. As if it mattered.

What a fine specimen of a freelancer I was! Whining impotently at a bureaucrat.

I guessed at a household-income number, scribbled it onto the form, added a few more words to the "explanation" section, turned in the form, walked into the jury room, found a seat in the corner and sat down.

About forty-five minutes later, Plump Lady quickly announced the names of the few who had won the hardship derby. Then she got to the denials: "Please answer 'Here' when I read your name, and then go to the office window and check in."

So they must humiliate us as well: "All malingerers, please report to the stocks to receive your Scarlet A."

She read off a few names, then called out, "James Hull!"

I said "Here!" I got up, pretending I wasn't embarrassed, and made my way across the roomful of jurors who hadn't tried to get out of this duty. At the office I was processed quickly. I returned to my seat.

Later - as we all sat, waiting to be called to a jury panel - a woman near me stood and walked to a window, which she pulled open, and stared out at the rainy morning. "Oh, I'm not going to jump," she said to me, smiling.

Making conversation, I asked, "Is your employer paying for your jury duty?"

She snorted. "Hah! I wish."

Then it hit me: many of these people must use up sick-leave days or sacrifice pay altogether to perform their civic obligation. Here I was, grousing, when all along I had the cushy advantage of the freelancer's life: I can set my own hours, I can come and go as I like. I might possibly blow off a commission while at the courthouse, but this paled against the certainty that most of these folks would lose money for their troubles. Jury duty amounts to a tax on its citizens. Can't we find a better way? I don't know.

I wasn't named to any panels, and at the end of the day I was excused from service. "One day or one trial," they call it. I got through unscathed.

After a year or so I'll probably hear from them again.


 

If you find any part of this work quoted without credit to the author, please let him know! Thank you. jimhull@jimhull.com

 

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...And Fellow Citizens Give Their Views...

 

I had my own experience with a jury summons. Everyone told me I was crazy when I said it was part of my civic duty to perform this function. I was told I was too valuable to be doing fool things like that. I announced that I was going to do it anyway. And, on the appointed day, I showed up at the county courthouse, filled out some forms and waited.

Two hours later, we got the story. It turned out that someone was up for armed robbery and murder. Fine, I said, what's the evidence. But no evidence was to be presented that day. For that matter, no evidence would be presented that week. Instead, we were told to put our affairs in order: the trial process would take eight hours a day for the next three to four months. Plus, I would be driving an hour each way and tying up our family car.

I was astounded and shocked. Is the trial-by-jury system really that inefficient? Three to four months is a very long time. My feeling is that three to four hours would be sufficient. I understand some things. The defendant wants all avenues explored. The trial is a major concern to him. He has nothing to lose. But I had a business to run and a family to support. I knew that if I was not able to finish work on a Windows 95 product in the next two months, we would be out of business. I would be saying, "I know my business failed, but it was for a good cause. There is one person who got a fair trial because of my sacrifice." How could I tell that to my family and customers?

So I made a hardship plea and was let go. Some day, when I have nothing to do, I will volunteer for jury duty. Until then, I have to keep my priorities straight.

Bruce Rowe, president, Center Stage Software

 

I enjoyed reading about your entanglement with the justice system, but your 'trial' was nothing in comparison to what I went through in applying for late admission to CSUN and getting the total run-around from all of those state-funded bureaucrats. Talk about befuddled! The tunnel vision of most of these public servants is truly amazing. Everyone has a narrowly defined job to do and, by dad-gum, no one is going to poach on their turf. "Pass the Buck" is the game they all play.

Most astounding is CSUN's voicemail system. The ultimate rejection is spending fifteen minutes pressing one button after another in response to endless menus of possibilities, and being transferred from one office to another in the vain hope of finding a live person, only to arrive finally at the desired party and be informed by a recorded message that the person is not there and - too bad - there is no voicemail to leave a message! Argghhhh.

Leslie Schwartz, educator

 

Your storytelling puts me right there in that courthouse feeling the frustration and exasperation you felt (and the little humorous moments that must have saved your sanity)!

I think one of the weirdest things about jury duty is that the rules are all different, depending on the particular district you're reporting to. So you CAN'T POSSIBLY know how to get your request granted. What works in one place is totally ignored in another.

Michelle Sheridan, Braille Institute

 

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