Saturday, December 15, 2007

Jury duty.....

.....or, more correctly, non jury duty. With the lakes being frozen there will be times when this blog veers away from kayaking and this is one of 'em! When I was summoned last week, I thought it would not only be a way to do my part to affirm the rule of law in Ramsey County, but also be an interesting way to observe the legal system. So far it has been as interesting as watching paint dry or bridge rust. Any lofty, idealistic ideas about civic duty are quickly and efficiently crushed. There are a couple things they could do to make it duller, more boring, and bigger a waste of time but I don’t want to mention them in a public forum for fear they would implement them. Although they haven’t really implemented anything new since the Truman administration so I don’t know what would make me think my little critique would make them do so now. The way the system works is to send a summons in the mail along with a questionnaire that you fill out and send in. You are asked to report to the courthouse--in my case Ramsey County in downtown St Paul--at 8:30am on Monday morning. I join the rush hour migration downtown and park in the last spot on the 12th floor of a parking ramp approximately 16 miles from the courthouse. Upon arrival at the courthouse I go through a security system that would make Homeland Security beam with satisfaction. I’m relieved of 3 pen knives (one on my key ring, one on my money clip, and one just for fun), all with vicious looking ¾” blades that could certainly leave a mark, were I to go berserk. The metal snap buttons on my coat set off the alarm so my arms are extended, legs spread and I’m wanded front and back by the bored and surly security woman who grunts “OK” at me as I’m sent on my way. I then descend into the basement, the very bowels of the courthouse, to the jury room which has been modeled after a Department of Motor Vehicle waiting room with stylish ‘60’s vintage institutional furniture arranged in precise geometric patterns. I don’t need to take a number but I do need to have my summons scanned for attendance; they don’t actually call out your name and have you raise your hand until you are selected to be on a panel. I guess I need to retract the Truman administration crack; bar codes actually came into common usage during the Carter administration. You’re then given a ‘pool number’ in case one of the many cases that prosecutors and defense attorneys have procrastinated over for months needs to go to jury trial. A short orientation film is shown. Production values of this 10 minute epic brought back memories of elementary school filmstrips like “Hydrogen: An Interesting Gas” or “Romania: Jewel of the Balkans”. And then you sit and wait. And wait and wait and wait. If you’re lucky you aren’t sitting next to the obnoxious guy recapping his medical history or the woman who has ‘just the cutest cats.’ I was lucky enough to nab a 1983 National Geographic off the magazine rack which enlightened me about life in East Germany behind the Iron Curtain. You can’t have a cell phone; that would be contempt of court if you’re caught. Actually you could have one but you’d need to run the 16 miles back to the parking ramp to stash it in your car if your group was called and there wouldn’t be time for that because the important and busy court (the guys who had those months to settle this case) must not be kept waiting. You could maybe get some work done on your computer since, in most cases, your employer is covering you for doing your civic duty, but there is, of course, no wireless internet available. Nor are there electrical outlets available to recharge the battery on the computer; they all look like Clark Griswolds outlets in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. At roughly 11 am on the third day, some of the groups are excused. The rest of us have a lunch break and then report back to exercise our gluteus muscles for the rest of the day. Nothing happens and I arrive at work around 4 pm, pissed and aggravated at wasting another entire work day, as well as 3 days behind during the busy holiday season. And then you do it again the very next day.

Now that I’ve finished savaging the jury system, I figure some constructive suggestions might be in order. In another life I actually worked in the DA’s office in a western Wisconsin county and got to observe this process from the inside. Which of course, means that even though I sat in the jury pool dutifully day after day, I would likely be instantly struck from the panel by the defense attorney once he learned of this little tidbit. Anyhow, here we go:

-Perhaps have some screening questions on the questionnaire that would eliminate people who have no chance in hell at getting on a criminal panel. Like me. My DA service plus getting burglarized as well as assaulted in my checkered past have made me a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ guy. Any defense attorney worth his fee would strike my rear end from a panel immediately.

-A semi convenient parking area. Since the size of the pool is roughly the same every single week of the year and since a fairly stable percentage of these folk drive, would it make sense to have a parking area reserved for jurors? Judges and lawyers sure as hell seem to have one.

-Allow people to be productive and get some work done. Have a secure area where cell phones can be stored if you go to court. Join the mid 90’s and get a wireless hookup. Throw in a couple more Clark Griswold style electrical connections so you can charge your laptop. Maybe have a quiet work area where you don’t have to listen to the inane babble of some of the more socially challenged of your fellow inmates.

-A paging system with a 30 minute time limit to report. Even restaurants have those blinking pagers that they hand you so you don’t need to sit in a crowded bar or waiting area. Plus that new innovative technology, the cell phone, might even be utilized! It could be a horrible inconvenience to the court if they had to wait 30 minutes for the jury panel to report (those guys who had months to settle this case, remember?) but I really do think they would live.

-Volunteers? This is a bit like golf. Although I have no interest in it, there seem to be plenty of people who do. Somehow the ‘jury of your peers’ thing doesn’t seem to be in play anyhow. As I look around the room I see a bunch of roughly late 20’s to middle aged white people, a very different demographic from the majority of Ramsey County defendants. The idea of a professional jury is problematic but my guess is that there would be enough people to rotate on a several-year basis at the worst.

-A bit more human courtesy and information. I don’t want a mint on my pillow, an egg in my beer, or even complimentary coffee. I just don’t want to be droned at, ordered around, or treated like cattle being routed into the stockyard pen. Selma and Patty, Homer Simpson’s sisters-in-law, are an all- too-true caricature of any public interaction we have with a lot of government employees. And for god sakes, give us a bit of an explanation of whats going on. Don’t be like the airlines when a flight is delayed or cancelled and make up stories as they pop into your head.

This may sound like petulant whining, but there is serious room for improvement in this process. If the general population begins to regard jury service as a pain in the ass there will be serious consequences for the justice system. Google ‘avoid jury duty’ and see how many hits you get and the organizations that are hosting the websites. Not good. Even though a 1964 Chevy and a 2007 Honda Accord both get you around, I would think that the efficiency, safety, and comfort of the Honda would be preferable in most cases. Lets put some thought into our 1964 Chevy jury system and see if we can’t make it a bit more user friendly. Its the cornerstone of Rule of Law and should be a positive experience, not an ordeal.


Silbs said...

Brilliant, 100% true and so well Written. I wouldn't mind it so much (it is a little better in Milwaukee County) but, like yourself, I will never get on a jury because of my educational backround. Oh well. I always take my own books.

Ranger Bob said...

Any defense attorney worth his fee would strike my rear end from a panel immediately.

Same here, with a law enforcement career under my belt. Makes it awfully frustrating to hang around for hours just to get to that point.

Kristen said...

Must be one of the benefits of being a plurry "foreigner" (even with a Green Card), you're ineligible for jury duty, even though the letters do arrive (which makes me pause for thought...). But as a living individual who pays taxes and could still be hit by an American when biking to work, perhaps I should be eligible.

Excellent piece of writing, Olson.

DaveO said...

Kiwi, I think you'd make a fine juror, likely much better than me or our other two commenters ;) . My advice would be to play dumb and go for it. Show up and see what they do. It would be a great post!