Monday, July 28, 2003
Civic Duty

My call for jury duty was short-lived and uneventful. No murder trial; not even a tort. Instead, most of a morning of waiting until dismissed. The judge had gotten all parties to settle (sounds like civil cases were being tried).

The courtroom where the jury pool assembled was substantially less Kafkaesque than I had feared. It was on a windowless second-floor room instead of in a windowless basement. Instead of stapled-in tounge-and-groove random hole acoustic tile from the 50s or 60s with fifty or forty years of accumulated dirt and human dander -- and smoke left over from the day when the judge probably sat up front puffing away at the components of a pack of Luckies -- the room had fairly modern drop-in acoustic tile. Flourescent lighting was all around, as it seems is required by law except on courtrooms as seen on TV, excepting pairs of two-lamp sconces on the front and two side walls. The walls had been, again surprisingly, recently painted; the front wall behind the judges bench had wood panelling with too short of a period: the pattern was too obvious.

The benches were like pews from a church, except they didn't have a place to put the hymnals or the communion glasses that had been emptied of Welches grape juice. That is, they were basically uncomfortable.

Our hosts were Lime Green Suzie and Navy Blue Connie of jury management of the Volusia County Clerk's office. (And kudos to the County Clerk for getting ahold of the "www.clerk.org" URL way back when. Talk about proactive.) Lime Green Suzie was cherubic and did the kind of quasi-comic shpiel I've come to expect from the person in charge of herding unwieldy human cattle who've been placed in a situation most of them never asked for; Navy Blue Connie seemed to be all business. Both were dressed very professionally -- guess what color of very professional business attire each was wearing -- and both had that frosted blonde hair appropriate to their middle age. They were assisted by three older gentlemen described as volunteers. I never was quite sure who these guys, who might've been Bob and Bill and Joe for all I remember -- their names had WWII generation all over them, and their ear canals were appropriately occupied by either hearing aids or substantial hair growth -- had come to volunteer for service assisting the jury management folks. Maybe they had once been bailiffs.

No sooner had Lime Green Suzie told us of how County Judge So-and-So would be selecting juries today, than Circuit Judge Such-and-Such was introduced by a bailiff, who, as far as I know, was not named Rusty. The judge showed up to deal with prospective jurors who needed to be excused right then and their and in person. From the looks of it, the prospective jurors needing to be immediately excused were largely the ones who hadn't bothered to read and return the form jury management sends out. One woman had a child in tow, I suppose to demonstrate her immediate need to be excused. I hope the judge asked her if the child was hers or if she had just borrowed it to get out of jury duty. Another woman -- I may work with this one -- said that she was needed because she taught this or that. She didn't get excused. (Personally, I found the jury management folks to be very easy to work with. At my request, they rescheduled my service to a time outside the academic year, and they moved it far enough into the future that I could plan other obligations around it.)

Then the waiting began.

Okay, first they showed us a video about the jury system. The woman narrating looked a lot like Sigourney Weaver, but without as much cheekbone. There was some content: civil trial vs. jury trial; defendant, prosecutor, and plantiff; voir dire; the opening statement, the evidence, the testimony, the closing statement, and the fact that the opening and closing statements are just lawyerly opinions, not evidence; the judge's charge; etc. Not a word, pro or con, about jury nullification, except passing hints that the judge is supreme and must be obeyed.

As one who is a big fan of diversity and recognizes the hassles in getting from a nation where white men run everything to one where people of all stripes fill all possible roles (given enough time), I did find myself wondering about the subtle messages sent by the images in the video: The narrator was a white woman; the lawyer was a black man; the judge was a black woman; the bailiff was a white man. Does it make me a bad person (gay white male) to be aware that those images are somewhat fantastic? That they are likely pushing someone's agenda (even if I agree with it), while others (whose agendas I disagree with) aren't given then same access to propagandize folks?

And whose agenda? The Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers, who had the video made and had to sign off on it? The company that made the video? The director and writer of the video? I don't mind propaganda -- I can make up my own mind, thank you -- but I like to know whose voice I'm hearing.

There is also the possibility that I am seeing intentionality when none existed. This could all have been accidents of casting availability, etc.

The jury pool was surprisingly white and male. There were a couple of Latino looking men, but in an ethnically diverse area like this, it's hard to say what their ethnic identity, if any, was. There were a few black women, but no black men. The jury process excludes convicted felons, and I couldn't help wondering if the higher rate at which black men are incarcerated combined with a relatively small black population locally combined to make that no-black-men-in-the-jury-pool happen. Or if it was just randomness in action. Statistically, if the odds are over 50-50 that two people in a group of twenty three have the same birthday (assuming birthdays are distributed equally likely over the 365 days), it's likely I wasn't the only non-heterosexual in the jury pool of, what, about 100 people (even assuming 1/100 odds instead of the often-cited 1/10).

They played an awful Bob Hope and Lucille Ball movie, to entertain those who cared to watch. I had no idea at the time that Bob Hope has passed away. The volunteer possibly-former-bailiffs seemed to be the ones who were interested in watching. I kept wondering if playing that movie constituted fair use just because the establishment in question was governmental, not commercial. My guess is that someone isn't getting as large of a royalty check as the MPAA would like. I also hope some local doesn't get busted for downloading the latest tunes only to find out the jury was improperly entertained.

The rest of us read magazines or books or went downstairs to the vending machines.

After starting at 8:30 a.m., around 11:00 a.m., Navy Blue Connie announced that the judge had settled all the cases on the docket, and that we were all excused. Lime Green Suzie had left earlier on important business: her house closing.

My civic duty was over with a little over two hours of sitting around, observing the courtroom, reading Augusten Burroughs's memoir, Running with Scissors (and trying not to laugh out loud), and the latest issue of the Rolling Stone (which features a particularly gruesome story on what things are like in Liberia). Under Florida law, if I understand correctly, that satisfies the state for at least a year. (David Bernstein, over at The Volohk Conspiracy has this post about jury service in several other states.)

Actually, my civic duty regarding jury service may not be over. I recently got a card from the Federal District Court in Orlando, so I may have the opportunity to compare and contrast jury duty there with what's reported above.b