Monday, October 10, 2011

Jury Duty, pt.1

The First Day
At noon two Wednesdays ago--September 28, for the sake of posterity--I had just finished up some work. I was feeling good. Bella was amped up and fussy, and I was about to take her to the park for some frisbee action. But a little bell kept going off in my head. "Tony," quoth it, "isn't there something else you're supposed to do today?" And suddenly that bell was a giant clanging siren, screaming "JURY DUTY JURY DUTY YOU STUPID ASSHOLE." It was right on two counts: I did in fact have jury duty that day, and I was a stupid asshole for forgetting it.

Rushing downstairs, I quickly find the San Mateo County envelope. I knew exactly where it was all along, but I never put it on my desk upstairs. Here's how the mail works the The Humboldt: if it's on the table downstairs with a hundred other articles of shit and about five pounds of spare change, I'm not going to think about it. Unimportant things go there. Important things like bills and court summonseseseses go upstairs on my desk, which is a surface containing the polar opposite psychic charge from the table. Which is to say, anything on the desk becomes a constant source of anxiety, possibly to the point of disrupting sleep. I wish there were some happy medium between these two spaces, but there isn't. The jury summons should have gone on one space; it went on the other. Sprinting upstairs with the letter, I enter my jury pool ID into the court website. This was supposed to happen the night before, so I'm desperately hoping they told me I didn't have to come in.

No dice; I had to report. But somehow the Gods smiled on me--one of the few times I can remember such an obvious bit of serendipity. Instead of the typical 8:30am summons, I didn't have to show up until 12:30pm! Checked the clock: 12:20. I'd expected to be totally screwed and have a "failure to appear" on my hands--instead I was only a little bit screwed! So I took Bella to pee, apologized to her, and ran out the door. The screwage turned out to be less severe than I thought, and I slipped into the initial juror orientation meeting about ten minutes late. Easy. Doing fine. Despite not knowing I even had jury duty at 12:15, here I was at the courthouse by 12:45.

And here my troubles began. The meeting was innocuous enough, and I'd missed almost nothing in the first ten minutes. Something you learn very quickly about the juror system: like the military, it's geared towards the lowest common denominator. It's designed to ensure that the absolute least qualified zero can succeed so long as he can follow directions. What this means as an intelligent person is that you can just ignore 90% of what you hear. The only important information: where you need to be and when. There is also a video that you have to watch, where former jurors talk enthusiastically about their experiences. On the scale of instructional videos, I'd rank it somewhere above an airline safety video and somewhere below a PSA telling family to devise fire escape plans. The latter ones often include some sweet stock footage of burning houses.

There were sixty-two people in my jury pool. The judge had all of us brought up to the 8th floor, which took about twenty minutes given the limited elevators. He explained in basic terms the case before the court: a civil case concerning a three-vehicle accident back in 2007. He stated they'd need twelve jurors and two alternates: fourteen people out of sixty-two. Great odds, right? I was optimistic. So naturally, my name was the very first one called from the computer-randomized list. A minute later, the other chairs were filled. I figured I still had a pretty good chance; from what I know, trial lawyers hate several things in jurors. Among them are education, creativity (particularly in their job), and familiarity with the subject matter. Given that this was a personal injury case and I deal with personal injuries all day in my work, I figured this was a slam dunk. I'd be out of here in no time and one of the other sixty people would be in my place. That's when the judge turned to me and says, "All right, Mr. Palumbi. Tell us about yourself; your education, your background, what you do for a living." It's a totally open-ended question, and seventy total strangers (including the plaintiff, defendant, and their lawyers) are staring right at me as I'm expected to talk about myself.

This is basically my worst nightmare that doesn't involve fire ants. My response was something that's happened in other situations, mostly when meeting new girlfriends' parents. I engaged my high-school debating instincts. I was a pretty good debater in high school ("were you a MASTER debater? Hurr hurr hurr") and it gave me an invaluable skill. In public, when called upon, I can speak eloquently at high speed about basically any subject for basically any length of time. Given the right motivation, I could extol the virtues of grapefruit for eight solid minutes, and you would think pretty highly of what you heard. It would all be bullshit, and I hate the bitterness of grapefruit, but you get the idea. So this is basically what I did in court--ran my goddamned mouth. I focused on the particulars of my work, since I was counting on this to bail me out of jury duty. Because I was nervous (remember the seventy strangers, and me being the first to speak), I cared nothing for brevity. The judge eventually stopped me, asking "Do you always talk this much, Mr. Palumbi?" I was mortified, but somehow managed to force a smile and tell him I did. I do, by the way. I talk all the goddamned time. I can either project a gregarious over-sharer, or be sullen and quiet in the corner. I wish there were more than two options, but I wished that about the table and the desk too.

I kept the rest of my answers short. I felt shitty for wasting everyone's time. But I had no idea what the judge was really like; over the course of the next few hours, he went through all the other jurors on the stand. All went into considerable detail about themselves, but the judge was practically determined to slow down the proceedings. He would ask questions dovetailing with his own personal experiences; one woman mentioned she'd gone to the University of Michigan, and the judge started asking her questions about whether she'd ever seen or been inside their new law library. Which is apparently gorgeous. So there's that, if you ever find yourself spending an idle day in Ann fucking Arbor. Another man's last name prompted the judge to ask if he was any relation to a woman with the same surname. The name? GUPTA. It's an Indian guy named Gupta, how many of those could there be? Only about 150 million on the planet and five million in this country. And this man being no relation didn't spare us, either. The judge went ahead and explained his connection to this woman whom NOBODY KNEW. He also spoke...very...deliberately. It was murder.

The ways people try to weasel out of jury duty when they're actually in the box are amazing and hilariously transparent. I didn't raise any substantial objections to serving; I had no real bias or legitimate problems that rose to the level the judge specified (he specifically used the example of a loved one being on her deathbed. But many didn't go down so easily. A Filipina woman (there were many in the pool) stated she didn't want to serve on a jury, because her Catholic faith prohibited her from passing judgment on others. Now, I'm pretty sure that judging other people consumes roughly 40% of a typical Catholic's day, but leaving that aside: these people hosted the SPANISH INQUISITION. How on Earth could anyone make such a blatantly false theological claim?

The judge was all over it, noting the only recognized group with such a prohibition are 7th-day Adventists. Something to look into the next time that jury duty slip comes around. But then he went off on his own special tangent, asking the woman if she was familiar with St. Thomas More. This is a 30something Filipina nurse who was clearly not raised in this country, or fucking England. The judge pointed out that More was a famous litigator and judge in addition to being a sainted Catholic, which is basically where I thought he was going. But he goes further, explaining not only the fact that More was executed but specifically why (his opposition to Henry VIII's remarriage). He then goes even further, explaining the parentage for both Ann Boleyn (I don't remember) and Catherine of Aragon (she was the daughter of Kind Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain!). All sixty jurors are dumbfounded. The lawyers and parties have poker faces. Things are weird. And of course, this little woman can do nothing but repeat her original (retarded) position. Ugh. The event proceeds until around 5pm, when the judge lets us all go home.

"But Tony," you ask, "what about the other sixty people?" We all had to come back for a second day of jury seletion. The process was such a glacially slow clusterfuck that sixty people (the vast majority of whom would never spend one moment in the juror's box) had to take a second day off work and re-appear to watch other people get interviewed by lawyers and a long-winded judge. Most of them slept or played games on their smartphones. The bailiff didn't care as long as everything was quiet. He was a pretty chill guy, for a mean old cop. Of the original fourteen in the box, eight were eventually dismissed. The folks who took their places were dismissed pretty rapidly, and the lawyers were given eight challenges each. There was a cranky Indian man who believed his self-employment should exempt him and claimed he would never vote with the plaintiff because he was "wasting my time by forcing me to be here." Yes, just you and only you. Another man claimed he'd been in a motorcycle accident six months prior that was nearly identical to the one described, and stated he could never vote with the defendant. A lot of people made up these claims, and stubbornly repeated them even as the judge and lawyers tried to unearth reasonability. All the real assholes got let go--this is a good lesson about how the world works, and how society is geared to privilege assholes. In any civilized discussion, the least reasonable person wins. Remember this for later.

Eventually we had our fourteen. Five men, none (save myself) younger than fifty. Nine women, ranging in age from 29 to 60something. One was legitimately hot; another was sneaky-hot. It's hard to describe. Anyway, on Wednesday at 12:15 the thought of jury duty hadn't even crossed my mind. By Thursday at 4:30, I was officially Juror #1 in the case of Gardner v. Lane. Despair was sinking into my fellow jurors. They were realizing that the next week or two or their lives would be consumed by what essentially mounted to a giant steaming pile of bullshit. Some had been blindsided, like the young mom who was the very last picked from the pool late Thursday. That would have been worse, I think--sitting for two days in silence, watching the box, thinking "At least I've dodged this bullet and they'll eventually let me go." And then, right at the end, you get thrown up in the box and accepted and suddenly HAH YOU'RE FUCKED. I got two whole days to internalize exactly how fucked I was, and to reach a level of acceptance.

And what of acceptance? Well, the attitude I adopted (which I heartily recommend for others in the same situation) was essentially the attitude I have at the airport. See, I hate traveling. I dread it in advance, I hate it while it's ongoing, and unlike most people I just can't get excited about the destination until we're there. It's called being a pill. Anyway, I adopt the following stance at the airport: I am being cast into a giant machine. It's far larger than me, and I have no control over any aspect of it. I'm simply entering one end of the machine, and I know that it must eventually spit me out the other side. I don't worry about anything that appears to be a disruption, like delayed flights or sudden court recesses--they're just part of the system. I don't hope for good things to happen--they probably won't, and if they do they're also part of the system. Eventually I will materialize on the other side. I just need to read a book and listen to music and ignore the awful sea of humanity around me until it's over.

Part two, next: the actual trial itself! Part three will be deliberations. And yeah, it's been six months. Thanks for reading.

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