Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jury Duty

Just got back from Jury Duty--one day one trial. I've done this before in the old courthouse in downtown Cambridge where the parking is expensive and the courtroom old. Now I was dispatched to Woburn Superior Court deep in the heart of the suburbs in a "Trade Center" so new that it is still under construction and has signs everywhere encouraging passersby on the highway to lease thousands of square feet now. This and the form I filled out asking me whether I'd ever been sued, had any run ins with the law, and etc... cast a certain doubt on whether, in fact, this crown jewel of our legal system is actually for "everybody" as they kept insisting. If there was any public transportation available I didn't see it so if you didn't have a car you would have quite a difficult time getting out there. If you were elderly, disabled, poor or without a car you'd have almost no way to get there. In addition, if you'd ever had any run ins with the law, after you filled out your explanation you'd be petrified to show up.

And, of course, the cost of showing up at all, regardless of how you do it, can be quite high. Nominally, although probably unenforceably, if you are called to serve your employer is expected to pay your salary for the first three days of service. After that, should your trial go longer than three days, you get paid 50 dollars a day by the state. If you end up on a grand jury and are forced to sit for three months there is some kind of financial arrangement made but its on a need to know basis. There is no reimbursement for the expense of travel because, as the handbook explains to you, your employer doesn't have to pay for your commute so why should the state? The fact that you may have organized your life so your commute to work doesn't cost a half gallon of gas but that you have no control over your jury service is ignored. If you are self employed the situation is actually even more dire because you are expected simply to foot the bill for the first three days like any other employer and you are only reimbursed the same 50 dollars a day after the first three days. And if you are a "housewife" or "at home" as they put it? Nothing for you for the first three days and the same 50 dollars a day thereafter which, as anyone who knows about child care, won't cover the costs of having to replace yourself with temporary help.

I'm not complaining. I'm one of the many people who love the idea of Jury Duty and would happilly serve on a Jury if called. I can afford it, and I think its incredibly important and engaging. The top of the jury service system, the judges and the architects of the courthouses, have clearly thought pretty hard about trying to make this difficult and expensive system feel worthwhile to the jurors and for the last few years we have been treated with a pretty well thought out video of our Chief Justice (the lisping Margaret Marshall) and other luminaries explaining what to expect and how important our service is. They repeat over and over again two little factoids of somewhat impeachable provenance: one that jurors who have served on actual juries (as opposed to the vast majority who are simply inconvenienced for a day) find it rewarding. The other is that after all, though many go down to the sunless lands, few return.--No, I don't mean that, too much C.S. Lewis--I meant to say "though many are called, few are chosen" but even those who "only stand and serve" also, oh hell, you get the idea. They tell you about fifty times that because the jury is ready to be empaneled those dilatory jerks of lawyers and clients often are forced to settle instead of simply "moving the case forward" over and over again. So just by showing up, apparently, we serve the greater good. Which, from this point of view, is the processing of cases and the settling of disputes without a trial.

The bailiffs have clearly been instructed to talk up this side of things, but their natural cynicism and disgust with the human race inclines them to take a pretty dispiriting approach to their temporary charges (us). The bailiffs have a set of jokes about how if we aren't careful our service "won't be counted" and we can be arrested or fined. And another set of jokes about how miserable we must be to be there, and how angry with the court system. And still another about how we must hate our jobs and our employers and be happy for a chance to gouge them by not going to work after our early dismissal.

Its all so enraging and dispiriting. They've got us in there already so why not make us feel pleased and proud? Why not use this occasion to remind us that in other countries a jury trial is not a given and that if we get the chance to serve we are actually a bulwark against kangaroo courts and unlawful detention? It was hard to sit there through the boilerplate talk about how great it is that both sides settle without reference to a jury trial without thinking of just how incredibly important it is that the accused is afforded a jury trial--if they aren't hauled off to gitmo without charges. there was tons of time--I would have liked the 17 minute video on how great we are for showing up to have included a little historical precis of just why a jury trial is the centerpiece of our legal system. I know its naieve of me to expect any better from any bureaucracy even in my beloved Commonwealth but it was a lost moment for all of us as the civics lesson that is doing your civil duty was trampled underfoot by laziness and cynicism.