Saturday, February 14, 2009
A Jury of Whose Peers?
I had jury duty last week. It was the seventh time I’ve been summoned, but never served. My profession usually guarantees rejection from civil trial juries and many criminal cases as well. So, I assumed I’d present myself at the court house on Monday morning and be out of there and back to work before lunch.
The jury supervisor did a general pre-screening of the jury pool, but it wasn’t as detailed as in the past, so I wasn’t shocked when my name was called to be on a panel of 70 potential jurors. I assumed I would get weeded out quickly once the lawyers started asking questions. I wondered though, why they needed a panel so large just to fill 12 spots?
The voir dire began after lunch. We were told only that the allegations were contractual and discriminatory in nature, but as the questions started we could fill in details. Throughout the voir dire, I raised my hand to answer several questions. I personally knew one of the witnesses the defense intended to call. I even knew the defense attorney. The heart of the case involved legal and contractual issues related directly to my job. When asked I’d shared that I’d had experience firing people and was aware of the regulations regarding what someone could and could not be fired for. I was one of the panel members who expressed frustration over a specific personality trait of the plaintiff’s that sounded like a critical piece of the defendant’s case. I let the defense attorney know that I had relatives who suffered from the same physical ailment of the plaintiff and that I was sympathetic to those with this particular ailment.
I thought I was far from an ideal juror for either side. I felt certain I would not be selected.
Listening to the lawyers and the judge ask questions I was struck by how many people on the panel were suffering hardships just by being there. I realized that some might be exaggerating, but most were honest. It's difficult for even the most skilled liar to let fibs slip easily off their tongue when they are in a court room, under oath and facing a judge.
There were several who were recently laid off and needed to be looking for a job or were working as day laborers to make ends meet. There were young mothers who could only get childcare if they could pay for it and they absolutely could not pay for it. The guy next to me was to start a new job that very day after being out of work for three months. He was worried how missing his first week would be viewed. There was a woman who’d finally found a job but it was in Salt Lake City and she had to pack and move her family that very week. There was a retired gentleman who’d just gone back to work on the morning shift at McDonalds. And a young man with a wife and a five day old baby at home all alone.
At least half of those employed told the judge they would not be paid their wages while on jury duty. And the $6.00 a day the state paid jurors didn’t begin to replace what they were missing.
Then, just when I thought there couldn’t be a bleaker statement about the dire state of our economy, one of the attorneys asked for a show of hands of people who did not have health insurance, a central issue in the case. Out of the 70, at least 20 raised their hands.
At one point the defense attorney, in what I guessed was an attempt at graciousness, told the panel that he appreciated the pressure they were under. He really did. But he admonished, serving on a jury was their civic duty. Then he asked if it would bother any of the prospective jurors that the plaintiff and the defendant were both well compensated physicians who were in a dispute over money and benefits. As it registered with the panel that both parties in the suit probably made more in one year than they might make in five or ten years, the atmosphere turned almost mutinous.
Regardless of the question asked, many panel members took the time allotted to answer the question to express their growing anger. Their frustration wasn’t limited to the understood financial imbalance - that they were being asked to put aside their basic necessities - finding a job, taking care of kids, feeding a family, to listen to a couple of doctors bicker over what was probably chump change to them. They were pissed about the state of health care in this country overall. They spoke of watching family members being misdiagnosed and suffering through unnecessary procedures. They complained about the high cost of health insurance and the restrictions imposed. They spoke of the inability of physicians to be sympathetic to the patients concerns, their unwillingness to take the time to know their patients and their propensity of talking down to their patients. Several stated that they felt medical professionals treated them like second class citizens.
I was amazed. The lawyers tried to cut people off and actually spoke over a couple of them. But the judge didn’t do anything to stop the process. I looked at her at one point and realized she actually looked happy about the strange turn of events. But then again, maybe this was normal behavior. Having no prior experience to compare it to, maybe it just seemed surreal to me.
I was heartened because the people around me, no matter how down on their luck, were still willing to engage in the discussion. Willing to express the anger that has been boiling through a major swath of the citizenry for years. I looked at the lines drawn between the lawyers and doctors on one side and the masses on the other and understood the meaning of the term “class warfare”. I realized that as much as the U.S. likes to be viewed as a class-less society, it only takes a catastrophe like our current economic morass for the differences between those that got and those that don’t to become crystal clear. That thought was more than a little frightening to me.
I realized I was watching a small but mighty populist revolt and was awed.
Control was eventually enforced and the panel was excused while the jury was chosen. As we waited in the hall, the case was not discussed, but people continued to vent their frustration and their fears. People broke into groups and commiserated with each other or talked on their cell phones to family, co-workers or friends.
I was surprised when I was selected. It still made no sense to me. Until I looked around at who had not been chosen. I realized that both attorneys had obviously steered clear of anyone involved in the last bit of the voir dire. Anyone who expressed frustration and anger was excused. Then I noticed that everyone I could remember who’d claimed a sincere hardship were excused as well. I gave the judge credit for that. Once those two groups were culled out of the panel there weren’t very many of us left. Barely enough to fill 12 chairs and a couple extra to serve as alternates. Looking at the group that remained, I was pretty sure we were no one’s idea of a perfect jury and in different circumstances we might have been the first to be excused. But, I finally understood why the original panel was so large.
The trial was alternately boring, petty and aggravating. Neither side was sympathetic. The plaintiff came across as whiny and incredibly naive. The defendant seemed supercilious and smug. The attorneys didn't come across much better, but they didn't have much to work with. (And unfortunately, when the jurors finally got to talk about the case in deliberation, I was actually one of the more upbeat and less critical members.) The issue could have easily been solved in mediation. The actual trial took four full days. The jury, once we accepted that we could not have everyone involved beheaded on the spot, deliberated for slightly less than 30 minutes.
Looking back, I wish my opportunity to serve on a jury was for a case of substance, a case that would make me feel like I was making a real contribution by serving. I’m sure most people, if they have to sit for a week or more, want the case to be noble in nature. My guess is the vast majority of cases have nothing noble about them.
But I was impressed by the afternoon I spent in the jury panel. There were several eloquent speakers who shared their fears, anger and frustration. There were people to whom life had been horribly unkind lately. But they were still engaged in the process, willing to contribute and trying to move forward. Mostly though, I sensed that they represented a larger segment of citizens, who for so long have silently put up with the status quo, and have now decided to start talking. And to quote Peter Finch in Network what they're saying is they are “mad as hell and they’re not going to take this anymore!”