Juries: Do Your Duty

On top of voting in this sewer of a political season, I’ve been tapped again for another civic duty: a jury summons arrived in the mail. Once again I’ll go, probably just to have a day out of my time as I am inevitably dismissed. I would be happy to be on a jury in January or February, but right now I’m in the middle of a book launch.

Plus I’ve just grown disgusted at what I’ve been made to witness as scam artists can hijack our court systems and try to game it with specious charges against someone or some institution in an effort to win the legal $$$ lottery. I guess I’m borderline in contempt of court, all of it.

Twelve people probably wouldn’t actually mind having jury duty for a couple of days during the competency hearing of some notorious criminal like the abused mother who drowns a child in a fit of delusional thinking, or an incredibly offensive one like the affluenza teen. These are actually problematic cases that require a thoughtful citizenry. I would love to be on those panels.

Unfortunately, my juror number, 416, promises to be an abysmally boring day in court if my last umpteen experiences are a guideline. Last time I spent three hours in civil court before I was dismissed. I’m always dismissed. If I’m going to show up I’d like to think that my zip code and higher education would not be used against me. But I digress.

I’m a former American history teacher. I approve, in theory, of our jury system. In practice, it works with the efficiency of the US Post Office and the Italian trains. The local news tells us getting citizens to show up for duty is becoming “a crisis.” As usual, the proposed solution is money. Pay the people more; give them nicer jury waiting rooms. Yeah, right.

Two years ago I showed up at the appointed time of 8:30 a.m., paid $5 to park in an “all day” lot, went through the metal detector, filled out my form, and sat in an auditorium where about two hundred people glumly read the paper, slept, or, incredibly, stared vacantly into space for hours.

I sat, read Time, Newsweek, the morning paper, sat some more, took a few breaks, got coffee, made a few phone calls, and sat yet some more. At 11:30 a.m. only numbers one through 400 (about 200 actual people) had been called. The rest of us were told to come back after lunch. My number was given a room and time slot of 2:30 p.m. I now had almost three hours to kill. I got my car, went home for lunch, did a few things, and returned to pay another $5 for the afternoon “all day” portion at the same parking lot.

At 2:30 p.m. my group of twenty sat restlessly until 3:15 p.m., at which point we were escorted in and lectured like five year olds about Francine, a convicted felon serving out her time in a psych hospital. She was so sick she couldn’t be present. The judge, both lawyers, and two doctors all agreed she needed to stay there, but under Texas Law a jury had to decide this too. They had to pick twelve people to rubber stamp this decision. Everybody groaned. I was excused by 4 p.m. while twelve glassy-eyed ticked-off people went to the jury box. Higher pay will solve this?

Nope. Let’s post numbers online the night before and let the trial pool of jurors come in the morning, the competency pool in the afternoon. Better yet, let people volunteer online for jury duty, particularly if they’ll be guaranteed that they won’t be called up again for five years. Here’s a radical thought (because it involves common sense), let people volunteer to be in a jury pool for a period of two weeks every two or three years, when it’s convenient for them: a truly concerned citizenry. As it turns out on Google, tons of people never show up.

The penalty? Usually nothing, because there aren’t resources to go track them down.

Let’s get the bubbas in the Legislature, with or without the trial lawyers’ backing, to give judges more latitude in deciding which trials need juries and which do not. In trials involving no jail time, such as traffic disputes, divorces, angry neighbors, let’s let juries consist of six or eight rather than twelve people if a judge deems a jury is needed. Let’s round up jurors only after the legal eagles have decided to plea or go to trial instead of using juries as blackmail for the prosecution to get a settlement.

Of course people plea when they look at the irritated, sleepy, bored people who may judge their lives.Jury duty used to be a trial of your peers. Not sure who that is anymore in our fragmented society. Will I get a gold star for paying my mortgage each month, ditto my credit card debt, showing up for jury duty, voting when I don’t like my choices? Why does that increasingly make me feel foolish? And where do I go to “take a knee?”

Len Bourland

The views expressed by columnist Len Bourland are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of People Newspapers. Email Len at lenbourland@gmail.com.

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