On Monday Nov. 3, approximately 400 Mono County residents were called to the County Superior Court in Mammoth Lakes for jury duty.
I was one of them.
I could have written a letter to be excused, of course.
I’m a freelance writer and have important deadlines to meet. I’m throwing bridal showers for my best friend the next two weekends out of town. Not to mention that I work for the newspaper and am typically assigned to cover court cases.
I could have always just thrown away the jury duty letter unopened, pretending like I never got it. Which is what several people I know have done. But considering it is election week and jury duty is part of our civic responsibility, I decided to show up, be patient … and hopefully escape selection.
Besides, like I said before, I’m assigned to cover court cases and had to be there anyways.
I showed up right at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, only to wait in a line that reached the parking lot. With two bailiffs working the metal detector, security was an awfully slow process.
The line inched forward until someone came out to announce that last names ending A-M were going into the courtroom first— there were too many of us to call at once. I quickly hurried to the front, cleared security, and found my place standing at the back of Courtroom 1. There weren’t enough seats for even half of us.
The court clerk began taking roll call. Half of the names she called out had no response, again reminding me that I could have just thrown away the jury summons and never shown up.
Once everyone was accounted for, the visiting judge came in. After we were sworn in under oath, he told us about our responsibilities as jurors, admonished us not to discuss the case with anyone, including people in the room, and then dismissed us until the following afternoon due to technical difficulties in the courtroom.
We were given the chance, at that time, to fill in a juror questionnaire about our work history and biases towards corporations, judges, or attorneys— giving us ample opportunity to come up with an excuse to be let go. The clerks were also taking excuses at the podium and the line to speak to them in person soon filled the aisle.
The next day, I again arrived just at 1:30, leaving a work meeting prematurely and speeding through town to make it. The line for security was much shorter, most likely helped along by four bailiffs working this time.
The potential jurors filled the hallways, waiting. Finally the clerks came out and took roll call, excusing people based on their questionnaires as they went along.
There were sighs of relief as some were dismissed, and curses of frustration from most of us who had to stay.
Eventually, we—still roughly 100 people at this point—all went into the courtroom. The judge then heard more excuses from potential jurors— some of which worked, most of which didn’t—before releasing us for a 45-minute recess while the technical issues were still being worked out.
Finally, at 3:15, the judge officially called the case and the jury selection began.
The clerk called a computer-generated list of 18 names, the juror and back-up juror seats filled, and the questions began. In front of everyone.
It became apparent very quickly that no one wanted to serve on the jury and everyone was trying to find an excuse to be let go. (Except one man in a suit who was overly eager to serve and was kicked off fairly quickly.)
Who actually wants to serve jury duty? It disrupts our work and lives, only paying $15 a day. Most of us in the room were missing work without pay just to be there for selection. Some were driving from as far away as Walker and Chalfont—56 miles one way, one lady said. On the second day, one mother brought in her son for lack of childcare. She was of course dismissed, which left us all wishing we were raising small children.
Jury duty is inconvenient at best and mind numbingly boring at worst. But, in the grander scheme of things, no real harm comes of it.
We live in a country where we do have the right to a free and fair trial. We do have the right to an impartial jury and judge. Jury duty is part of the system that protects our rights and liberties, even if that system isn’t perfect.
And we often take it for granted.
I’m not overly patriotic myself. I’ve just traveled enough of the world to know that freedom is rare and civic responsibility even rarer.
After I spent the first hour or so battling my internal selfishness and desire to be anywhere but in the court, I couldn’t help but suck it up, sit on the uncomfortable bench, and learn about this process I really knew nothing about.
The judge, and then the attorneys, asked prospective jurors about their work history, previous knowledge of the case, and general sentiment or opinion about relevant topics. The judge also ran through a rather long list of potential witnesses, asking the citizens in consideration about their relationships with anyone on the list.
The judge was slightly long-winded and a sigh arose from the crowd every time he took his elbows off his desk and leaned back in his chair to explain some part of a juror’s responsibility. After a juror was dismissed based on the information provided, the judge would assure them they were not bad people. The citizen would walk out of the room smiling in victory. Several people were dismissed for a variety of reasons according to the law before the attorneys were given the opportunity to dismiss eight people without cause.
Every time a seat was vacated, one of the six backup jurors took their place and the proceedings continued. Once there were no more back up jurors to fill empty seats, the clerk went back to her list of randomly selected names, filling the jury box back up before the judge and attorneys repeated the same questioning and dismissal with the new prospects.
Each time this happened, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be called, hoping my answers could somehow get me dismissed. Or, if I wanted to remain in the crowd, keeping my chances of selection slim and my privacy intact. Either way, whenever the clerk went back to her list, my anxiety level rose, as did the sighing or cursing of the crowd as they were called.
Thursday morning, approximately 40 of us remained for possible selection. What made it more painful was the constant stream of pathetic excuses from the potenetial jurors that wasted our time and didn’t get anyone out of service.
Thursday just before lunch, 12 jurors and three alternates were picked. I was not one of them. After four days, jury duty did not feel like the freedom that it most certainly provides.