I arrived at Monmouth County Courthouse bleary-eyed and confused at 8:30 AM on Monday, ready for jury duty. I had my required forms, my work to review (a 300 page document production package that I needed to redact), and a healthy supply of newspapers. I was curious, albeit irritated, as to how jury duty would work. Curious, because family lawyers have absolutely no contact with jurors. Family law is considered the law of equity, a type of law that is not guaranteed the right to a jury under the Constitution. I was irritated because my jury duty had fallen in amongst the most busy week of the month. I had to, by Friday, prepare a settlement agreement, draft a lecture, and appear in Atlantic City for the Annual Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) "Boardwalk Seminar." I was ready for anything.
Anything, that is, except for the sort of unending boredom that likely awaits me in whatever pit of Hell to which I'll be sent.
By 9:30, the judge had sworn us in as jurors. After swearing us in, the judge launched into a thirty minute long defense of the jury system that seemed strangely defensive and largely irrelevant (regardless of what people felt of the jury system for resolving disputes instead of, say, mediation, we were stuck there, and we were likely going to be jurors). He left us to our own devices for half an hour before the jury administrator returned, explaining that, in payment for our services the State of New Jersey would provide us with $5 for each day of jury services. State employees, however, would have to turn over their regular wages (which one must assume is just slightly more than $5 per day) in exchange for this compensation. "Oh yes," she explained, "you also are entitled to one free small cup of coffee per day at the cafeteria." Oh, well that makes all the difference, I thought. Initially, I thought we were getting a raw deal by being trapped here at a rate of $5 per day, but now that I know we are also entitled to one (1) cup of coffee per day, everything's changed. I began banging my head against the top of the folding table I was sitting behind.
At 10:30, I noticed that a group of men, one of whom was shuffling a deck of cards, were sitting at a nearby table. I walked over and introduced myself. A large man with a blond moustache and a Harley Davidson meshback baseball cap invited me to join them.
"What are you playing?" I asked.
"Five card draw," another man, this one missing one of his incisors, answered.
"Sounds like a game," I said, and sat down.
The dealer finished shuffling the deck and quickly dealt the cards.
"No wilds, ante at a quarter," he said as he picked up his cards. We all chipped in our quarters and picked up our cards. I had two eights, a jack of spades, a three of diamonds, and a ten of clubs. I anted up another quarter and dropped the ten and the three. The dealer gave me another ten - which caused me to groan inwardly - and a four of hearts. I ended up losing to someone with three nines, and anted in another quarter. It's going to be a very, very long day, I thought.
Two hours after we began playing, after a stern lecture from one of the Sheriff's Officers that guard the courthouse ("you, of all people, should know better than to gamble in a courthouse." "Officer, I of all people shouldn't be forced to have the free time to gamble in a courthouse."), we were released for lunch. No jurors had been picked, but the judge gave us a stern warning that if we weren't back from lunch and were called for a case, he would personally sign the contempt order. I sighed. There's nothing like using fear as a motivator for people who were kind enough to show up for their civic duty.
After lunch, it was more of the same. One pool of jurors, mostly elderly women, was called up for a case. Judging by the number of jurors called, it was for a criminal trial. In criminal matters, the judges usually call up thirty-two jurors for voir dire (where the attorneys and the judge question jurors prior to eliminating those jurors they don't feel suited for the case). The thirty-two jurors are whittled down to a final group of sixteen, with twelve jurors and six alternate jurors serving the length of the criminal case. In civil cases, twenty-four jurors are called up, and eight sit (six regular jurors and two alternates) for the duration of the trial. I made another feeble attempt to use my cell phone to call my office, fearing that all hell had broken loose in my absence. Unfortunately, the jury pool was located at the precise location where no cellular service could be obtained in the courthouse (mind you, I don't think that was on purpose; the Monmouth County Courthouse pre-dates portable radios....). I grabbed my juror identification pass and clipped it to my shirt (so that my colleagues, my fellow attorneys, would not make the mistake of causing a mistrial by talking to me).
Outside, it was beautiful. The sun, that strange orb of natural light that I somehow missed for the past three months, seemed to be causing something called Spring, judging by the number of women I saw jogging past the courthouse. As expected, my call to my secretary revealed that, in my absence, she had decided to sneak home earlier than usual. I left a message with her asking her to forward all calls to my cellular phone's voice mail system, and went back down to the jury room. I arrived just in time to hear myself being called for a jury. I assembled with twenty-three other people, and was led to a large freight elevator. There, we were sent up to the back side of the courtrooms, escorted down a narrow passage that was dotted with the judges' chambers, and assembled in a courtroom. Two attorneys sat at the litigants' tables, preparing overhead projectors and powerpoint demonstrations of what appeared to be a series of contractual documents.
After a few minutes, we were ordered to rise by the Sheriff's Officer, and the Judge entered the courtroom. I stifled a laugh. It was the judge before whom I had tried my first four cases. I had heard that he had been transferred from the Chancery Division (which hears family matters) to the Law Division, but had forgotten about it.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the Judge began, "thank you all for being here today. You are playing an important part in the function of government. You are deciding the weight given evidence heard before us today. I will be deciding the law. Today, ladies and...." The judge paused.
"TPB, what the hell are you doing here?" he asked.
I held up my juror identification badge with a silent smile.
The judge laughed. "Get the hell out of here. Go back down to the jury pool and make sure you don't go before anyone here that you know."
"Thanks, Judge." I gave him a little wave and headed back down to the basement.
I checked back in with the Jury Administrator, explaining that the judge had dismissed me from his case, and sat back down at the folding table. The men with whom I played cards were gone, perhaps to another jury. In the front of the room, the three televisions in the jury pool had been tuned to soap operas. I grabbed two adjacent chairs, turned them so they faced each other, and settled in for a nap.
"Jurors, your duty for the day is over. Please return here at 8:30 tomorrow for your next day of service," the administrator announced over a microphone. I awoke with a start.
"Sweet Christ," I gasped, trying to figure where it was that I had woken up. After a second, I came to a more full consciousness and packed up my things.
I didn't make it to my office until 5:30 that night, my desk covered in a pile of memos, phone messages, and notes from colleagues asking for research from me. I settled in for a long evening of making up for those hours of the day taken away by the State.
The second day was a repeat of the first. A judge walked in, swore us in as jurors, lectured us on the merits of the jury system, and left us to our devices. I unpacked two novels - Richard Russo's Empire Falls and William Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties - that I had slipped into my briefcase before leaving home, and began reading. Lunch was called a few hours later. I returned from lunch and finished the first novel. The jurors were dismissed, none having been called, a few hours later. I returned to my office, smelling a disturbing trend. They're not going to let us escape, even if they don't need us. They're going to trap us in that basement regardless of whether there is any need for a single juror. My desk, once again, was a mess of telephone messages and memos.
The third day, once again, repeated the trend. We were sworn in, and I settled down in two chairs for a nap. Effectively, I had spent the past two days napping and reading. At 11:00, though, I was called up to another courtroom. Once again, we filed into the freight elevator like cattle. Escorted into the courtroom, I slouched down next to a man wearing a baggy black sweater over a faded purple polo shirt. I rested my eyes for a second before the man caught my attention.
"Hey," he whispered.
"How come you're all dressed up?" he asked.
I was wearing a sport coat, dress pants and a tie.
"The sheet said to come as we dressed for work." I explained, and slouched down further, hoping to slip back into the nap I had begun in the basement.
"What do you do?" he whispered.
"I'm a lawyer."
The man laughed and nudged an older fellow in front of us. The older man wore a satin VFW jacket and appeared to be constantly adjusting his dentures by slipping his jaw back and forth.
"No way he's getting called," he whispered to the older man. "He's a lawyer."
The old man laughed.
"I'm sure you guys have a deal worked out where you don't call each other for the juries," the old man said.
I rubbed my eyes.
"I don't know," I answered. "God knows, I wouldn't pick me. No one in their right mind would pick me."
The man in the sweater and polo shirt nudged me. "So what do I have to do to get out of this?"
Blinking, I thought for a second.
"Well, besides being me, you have to be either a doctor, priest, or engineer."
"A doctor knows too much about the body and medicine. An engineer knows too much about math and is too analytical. A priest... well, people tend to defer too often to priests."
I had made up the part about the priest, but it sounded good. My colleagues in personal injury law had mentioned the other two professions to me as ones they wouldn't accept onto juries.
"What if you don't do any of that?" He asked.
"Act like you're reasonably intelligent, have a decent income, and a clue about what the hell's going on, and you're pretty much guaranteed to get removed from a jury."
The judge came into the courtroom and introduced the jurors to the two attorneys and the parties. He explained that the matter stemmed from a consumer fraud action relating to the purchase of a sedan, and began the selection of the first eight jury candidates. I was skipped over for the first round, to my relief. Please, please please. Please don't select me as a juror. I have to write a motion. Please don't make me come in for another day of this. I was hedging my bets. I theorized that, if I wasn't called to a jury by the end of Wednesday, I would be dismissed. No judge would start a case on a Thursday or Friday.
The first juror was excused after he explained that he had bought a car from the dealership being sued. The judge called up a second juror, a young woman in conservative clothing. She wore an engagement ring and simple, slightly unfashionable glasses. The judge began questioning her, part of the same voir dire routine that the other jurors had undergone. She was a nurse who lived with her parents, but she intended to move out once she was married. He asked her what her family members and her future husband did, and she explained that most of them worked for an ambulance company. The judge asked her what magazines she read, what television shows she watched, and what hobbies she enjoyed. After she answered that she would have no hardships if she served as a juror, the judge moved on to the man next to her.
The man was in his mid-forties, it appeared. He worked at a deli counter in a nearby supermarket, and wore a short-sleeve Oxford shirt with what appeared to be a tie provided by the supermarket. On the backs of his forearms were tattoos of dragons that seemed vivid in the courtroom light. The judge ran through the voir dire questions with the man until the man stated that he did have a hardship. The judge called the man up to the bench for a sidebar conference between him, the judge, the two attorneys, and the court clerk. After a few minutes, the judge dismissed the man, and called up another juror.
The juror was an older woman with thick glasses. She wore a stained red sweatshirt and baggy blue sweatpants. Her hands were shaking as she approached the jury box. Before the judge could begin his voir dire questioning, the woman began babbling.
"Please, I can't do this. My doctor said with the stress and my son, he killed himself and I'm alone, and I can't do this because of the decisions and the tension..." she began before the judge cut her off and asked her to approach for a sidebar conference. Most likely, both attorneys felt compelled to let the woman go, rather than lose sympathy with the other jurors. The woman nearly ran out of the courtroom after the judge dismissed her from the panel. The judge looked back down at his list, attempting to hide a wide grin that had spread over his face as the woman ran from the room.
"Mr. TPB?" he called out.
"Yes, Your Honor," I answered as I stood. A few heads turned in the courtroom. I was the first person to use the phrase "Your Honor" in reference to the judge. I was called up to the jury box as juror seven, and the voir dire questioning began. Shit. I thought. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.
"Would you state your name for the record?" The Judge asked.
"Yes, Your Honor. My name is TPB, Esquire, appearing on..." I paused. I wasn't appearing on behalf of anyone, I realized. The phrase had become habit when introducing myself to judges.
"And you heard the voir dire questions I asked of the other jurors?"
"Yes, Your Honor. Your Honor, I am currently employed as an attorney of the ________ Law Firm. I am an associate specializing in family matters and criminal litigation. My mother, your honor, is an administrator and guidance counselor at the __________ High School. My father is an administrative law judge, appellate team, Midatlantic Region, for the United States Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service."
I could hear a few snickers from the back of the courtroom. The sheriff's officer guarding the room smirked. I must be the first lawyer they've had, I thought.
The judge looked at me for a beat.
"Continue, please, counsel."
"Thank you, Your Honor," I answered, and tried to remember the questions asked of the other jurors. "Um... My hobbies are backpacking, skiing, and photography. I, uh... I don't watch television, really. Well, other than movies and 'The Simpsons.' I read four newspapers: the New York Times, the Asbury Park Press, the New Jersey Lawyer, and the New Jersey Law Journal. I read the following magazines: Backpacker, Outside, GQ, and, um, National Geographic. Ah... as for the rest...." I thought for a second, and then reconsidered answering the questions.
"Your Honor, may I approach the bench?"
"Counsel," the Judge answered, looking at the two trial attorneys, "please come forward."
I walked over to the witness stand, where the judge had situated a microphone on a separate system from the one broadcasting to the courtroom. The judge instructed me to speak into the microphone as I spoke with him and the two attorneys.
"Thank you, Your Honor," I whispered as I crouched in order to speak into the microphone. The posture forced me to look up at the judge from an awkward angle. "Your honor, I do apologize, but I have a convention at the end of the week, and I am to give a talk there that I do need to prepare for. Would it be possible to be excused?"
The Judge pointed at the defense attorney before as he answered. "Sorry, counsel. He's going too."
We chuckled at that point, recognizing the bizarre circumstances that had forced me into a position normally held by laymen. "So I'll be able to get out of here in time to make it to A.C. for the lecture?"
"I promise," the Judge answered. "We should be in here today and tomorrow, and then Monday, if necessary."
I frowned. The judge didn't seem to understand that the tomorrow in question - Thursday - was the day I had to be in Atlantic City for the lecture.
"Okay, then. Well, thank you Your Honor." I answered.
I returned to the jury box. The judge concluded his questioning of me by asking me to list the vehicles my family owned or leased, and whether I had any knowledge of valuation. I listed our vehicles and explained that I had written multiple articles on the valuation of closely-held businesses. Again, the judge, the trial attorneys, and I suppressed our respective smiles. We all know it's a joke that I'm here, I thought.
"Finally, counsel," the Judge asked, "do you think you could defer whatever interpretation you may have of the law for the interpretation I provide for you?"
The question threw me. I thought about it for a second. The truth of the matter was that I wasn't sure I could do that. I knew just enough law to know what I thought would be proper interpretations of it. As I started thinking about the issue, I began to realize what a problem it would be if I were selected for the jury. I couldn't help but mouth, silently, objections when watching other attorneys litigate. What would happen if I did so from the jury box? What if I did genuinely disagree with the judge's interpretation of the law?
"Honestly, Your Honor, I will do my best."
"I don't want you to do your best, counsel," the Judge responded. "I want to know whether you can do it - yes or no?"
I took a deep breath. "Yes, Your Honor."
The judge turned over the floor to the trial attorneys, who began the process of excusing those jurors they didn't like. The first to go was a woman who sat next to me on one side. She was a homemaker, and wore what appeared to be an outfit from Banana Republic along with a Tag Heuer watch and stylish glasses. Her husband was an investment banker. She's too educated for plaintiff's tastes, I thought. Next, the plaintiff's attorney asked the judge to excuse the young nurse. I assumed it was because she had working knowledge of car accidents and injuries. I ended up being the first juror nixed by the defendant, and a slight titter went up in the courtroom. I stood up.
"Thank you, Your Honor," I said as I exited the jury box. As I made my way past the litigants' tables, I whispered my thanks to the two attorneys for excusing me. Outside the courtroom, the young nurse who had been excused by the judge waited by the window that allowed people to peer into a courtroom.
"Hi," I said, still in a whisper, a habit I seemed to develop around courtrooms, as though they were like churches or art museums.
She smiled and we began talking.
"The second I heard you say that you were a lawyer, I knew you wouldn't get picked," she said.
"Well, I wasn't so sure," I answered. A colleague of mine had recently served on a criminal jury. "Regardless, I'm glad I'm done with it."
"Don't you have two more days?"
"Sure, but we'll probably be excused today if we're not called up again," I explained.
We went down to the jury pool, where I returned to napping. After an hour, the jury administrator excused us for the week, explaining that no more juries were being called for the week, as I expected. We fled the jury pool for the warm spring air like children from a schoolhouse.
Strolling to my car, I thought about how juries tended to be selected, musing on the fact that most of the jurors were seemingly retired, unemployed, or homemakers. Those that weren't disqualified from the jury I sat on tended to be uneducated and appeared to fall into the lower income brackets. There was an implicit assumption being made about the decision-making qualities of these people: they were just dumb enough to do what the lawyers wanted them to do. I didn't like the idea behind that. It struck me that such a thing didn't serve the interests of the litigants, or of the law in general. Better that we have jurors selected completely at random, without voir dire, other than questions relating to conflicts of interest or knowledge of the parties, witnesses, and adversaries, than those selected for their lack of education, experience, or intelligence. This, however, was not the system that has evolved, and I knew my colleagues that tried cases before juries would find my suggestion frightening. I could imagine them asking why I would be willing to give up an attorney's right to question jurors about their beliefs. My reasoning, as best as I could formulate it, was that I didn't want the attorneys to select those jurors whose beliefs were largely simplistic or in line with what the attorney wanted them to believe. "A jury of peers" was promised to us. Weren't we likely to have peers who were intelligent, well-educated, perhaps in disagreement with us, perhaps aware of the law or of science? If so in the real world, why not in the jury box?
Settling in for my drive back up north to the office, I realized that, really, I was more relieved that I wouldn't have to serve on a jury for the rest of the week. I returned to the building just in time for one of my bosses to assign an answer to an Order to Show Cause to me.
"The judge is going to hear argument on Friday, so I'll want that done and out by tomorrow morning," he explained.
I looked at my watch. It was nearly 5:30 in the evening. Shaking my head with a smile as I walked down to my office, a part of me wondered if I would have been better off trapped back at the courthouse.
I filed the reply papers, as requested, the next day, and made my way down to Atlantic City just fifteen minutes before my presentation, which went off without a hitch, other than a few minutes of nervous stuttering. Returning from Atlantic City on Friday, $280 richer from the tables and slightly hungover from the free drinks given to us by the fine people of Bally's, I received a call from the law clerk for the judge who was hearing our argument. The judge had accepted my reasoning and dismissed the opposing party's motion with prejudice and fees (granting counsel fees is a rare occurrence, and I was decidedly pleased). Not bad for a week spent largely in the basement of a courthouse, it seemed.