Thursday, February 09, 2006

Important? Or just necessary?

Yesterday, in response to my having completed jury duty in Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 15, the Hon. Judge Jean Spradling Hughes sent me a "thank you" letter. The letter stated that even though I hadn't been selected, that my jury duty was still important, because the jury system could not function without responsible folks just like me who appear, regardless of whether we are ultimately selected as jurors.

Curiously, I received a catalog in the mail the same day - February 8, 2006. It was the Despair Christmas Catalog. Now, I've given Despair Christmas Calendars out with great glee as Christmas presents in the past. But I'm just twisted like that.

However, one of their products -- a demotivational poster on the topic of Worth -- really seemed appropriate. The poster featured a lovely photograph of a number of gears, over the heading WORTH: Just Because You're Necessary Doesn't Mean You're Important. So, Judge Hughes, which is it: was my service important, or merely necessary?

I believe that is a serious question, and the answer depends on what role we see jurors playing in our legal system. Are they merely factotums, or are they the "palladium of justice" and the "bulwark of liberty?" Are jurors merely fact-finders, expected to blindly accept the law and the evidence and churn them into a mechanical verdict, or are they the conscience of the community, responsible for applying the facts and the requirements of justice to the law, and to fashion a conscientious and just verdict?

Jurors who are not charged with independent judgment and decisionmaking may be necessary for the system to function - but they are hardly important. Their role is mechanical, uninspired, dependent on the decisions of those "important" judges, prosecutors, police officers and lawyers who feed the data into them for a mechanically obvious solution to pop out. Such juries make decisions that are the results of the decisions of others. They are necessary, but fungible. They are unimportant.

Jurors empowered to "think outside the box" are important, because they are empowered to make important decisions. Even if the jury decides, as in most cases they undoubtedly should, that the law SHOULD be applied according to their instructions, the fact that they've been empowered to do more makes their decision to apply the law important. It embraces the voice of the community, it encompasses the power of public decision making.

Jurors are not merely cogs in the machine. They have the capacity to make important, even life-changing decisions. But to be important, they need to understand that those decisions are theirs; the decisions are not merely thrust upon them by the facts and the law. To be important, not just necessary, requires independent decision making. Without knowledge that they possess that role, jurors aren't important - only necessary.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Jury Duty: What Worked, What Didn't

Today, February 1, 2005, I appeared for jury duty in Harris County, Texas. I was on time - in fact, slightly early. I got there at 7:40 AM, and I was summoned to be there at 8:00 A.M.

Now, for all those who talk about making jury duty less onerous, I have a simple question: why 8 A.M.? That means leaving the house no later than 7:00 A.M. for most people. This is early. Defendants don't have to be at court before 9:00 A.M. in most cases. Why did I have to wake up an hour early?

Now, Jurygeek is a night owl. Waking up before 6:00 A.M. is not just inconvenient, but physically stinkin' painful. Moreover, I was punished for being on-time. See below!

Once there, I handed in my standard jury questionnaire (very brief: age, occupation, spouse's occupation, how many kids at home, what level of education), and sat down. Right at 8:00 A.M. they showed a boring video full of platitudes (like the lies I've complained of before), and then told us that the doors would close at 8:30.

Shortly after 8:30, they did another collection of the jury questionnaires, and then showed the boring video full of platitudes again. Because I was on time, I had to suffer through this silly crap twice! Once was quite enough to cure any insomnia I was suffering from (not a problem for Jurygeek at 8:00 A.M.), twice was simply abusive.

Shortly after that I was assigned to a venire panel going to County Criminal Court at Law #15. I was excited - a real criminal case, maybe a drug case in which my vote of "not guilty" can save some poor sap from some unjust law. Ah, the romantic musings of a venireperson!

Our venire-panel was walked over to the criminal courthouse (can't they afford buses? It was raining lightly, and few of us had umbrellas), and we assembled in the hallway outside the courtroom. And waited.

I did have a nice time chatting with a newly-licensed attorney, who was also an engineer and who hadn't made up his mind whether or not to actually practice law. We talked about how the criminal courthouse works, the jury system, and Jon Stewart (he was reading Stewart's America, and I told him that if the prosecutor saw that he'd never have a chance of getting on the jury.)

Well, about an hour and a half or more later, we were finally allowed into the sacred temple of justice otherwise known as County Criminal Court at Law No. 15. There were two lawyers and a defendant at one table. There was another lawyer at the other table. The defendant had headphones on going to his interpreter - he only spoke Spanish, as it turned out.

After we'd gotten into our appropriate seats, the judge started speaking to us. Nobody was really focusing on what he was saying, so far as I could tell. He didn't say much worth hearing, either. Even the least legally literate of us had heard it all on TV before, and even the judge seemed disinterested in the canned dialogue he was forced to recite.

The judge kept saying "Oh, and one thing I forgot," and kept going on what was obviously a word-for-word reading of whatever was in front of him. Nobody was fooled into thinking he was being spontaneous. He asked only whether any of us were not US citizens, convicted thieves, or felons, and a few similar questions.

One woman was anxious to get off the jury and raised her hand. Appears her son had been killed in a fight about a year ago, and so she was unable to be fair. She didn't even know what the case was about yet, but she was convinced she couldn't be there. Although she was ultimately dismissed, she was not excused until the end of jury selection.

Then the prosecutor stood up. Thankfully for me, he was a newly minted assistant DA, someone I'd never met there before. Great! I figured that meant he wouldn't recognize me or know to strike me from the panel. When he asked me what kind of law I practiced, civil or criminal, I said some of each. I tried to appear as indifferent as possible.

Turns out this was a family violence case in which the alleged victim was going to testify that nothing happened. Thus, the only evidence was to come from the cops, who would testify as to what she told them right after the events, supposedly as "excited utterances." Now, over the years the excited utterance exception has grown to swallow up the rule: what used to require the level of excitement that would deprive the speaker of reflection, case law now merely requires that the speaker be "upset." This type of evidence is notoriously unreliable in family violence cases, because the "upset" speaker can be looking for an advantage in a to-be-filed divorce, child custody, or child support case.

Well, any hopes I had of being on the jury faded quickly when the defense attorney got up to do his questioning of the venire. Right off the bat, he starts talking about how he used to be an assistant DA, and that he recognized me from all the cases we've done together... poof. After that, I was doomed... the prosecutor struck me off the panel after that.

Five days later, I got my check for $6.00 in the mail, to compensate me for jury duty. I spent more than that on parking, of course. But I have the check in hand, and I'm ready to spend it. Perhaps I can now buy that small Renoir I've had my eye on...