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Summons to Appear

About five or six times since reaching my majority I have received the annoying notice in the mail to appear for jury service. Since my first career was in law enforcement, this was generally unproductive. Cops and their kin are routinely dismissed from juries because of some belief that they cannot be fair and objective, an insulting prejudice.

While living in San Francisco, the dates to appear invariably interfered with some personal business. One time, we left a wedding reception on a Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica to drive 300 miles back to San Francisco in time for Monday morning. After all the waiting around and telephoning recorded messages, I got as far as a jury box to be questioned by counsel. On an assault case (homeless person punching a blood bank employee) I was excused after explaining that I had “been in lots of fights.” In an asbestos liability case I explained that was responsible for the largest asbestos prosecution in U.S. history, I was the only one in the courtroom who could pronounce mesothilioma, and I had past dealing with one of the defendants. Excused.

Lorraine has had a drivers license and voted every election for over forty years and has never received a single jury summons. Not one. Go figure.

When I moved to Seattle, the jury network must have somehow flagged my electronic dossier as one who appears and I received regular summonses from the county and the city. Last year, I was actually selected for a criminal case involving drugs (I was a narcotics agent for ten years). That was the first time I actually sat through a case. We returned a verdict of guilty (there was no real defense), but the process tied up two or three days.

One year later, another summons arrived for August. I cleared my calendar and arranged to be home from vacation in time to catch a bus Monday morning in time to be there by 8:00 a.m. The summonses come with a bus pass (one way) and a juror badge with a bar code. You walk into the jury assembly room and the worker scans you in and directs you to fill out a short bio form. The assembly room is like any waiting room, but with television monitors everywhere, a kitchenette, and a lunch area. A smaller waiting room to one side was built, I think, when they allowed smoking in public buildings, but serves now for people who need to make phone calls. We heard that most of those summonsed do not respond.

On Monday mornings the room fills up with those willing to do their civic duty reading, sipping coffee, snoozing, tapping away on laptops or PDA until the ubiquitous orientation tape runs. Then one of the judges stands up and gives us a pep talk. Next comes the list of names to draw numbers and be dispatched to courtrooms. Those not called continue to sip, read, snooze, tap, and chat. It’s a pretty well-organized system and its designers are conscious of the contribution being made by citizens for ten bucks a day. Ten bucks. It just covers a good lunch in downtown Seattle and in no way compensates for any lost wages. The state legislature has had many opportunities to change this, but has found other priorities to fund.The County does pop for bus passes or mileage.

Those whose names are called assemble on the designated floor. In the elevator lobby the bailiff lines us up by number and files us into the courtroom where lawyers and parties look at us with a mixture of curiosity, anxiety, and anticipation. My group numbered thirty-nine. The first fourteen fill the jury box and the rest of us take seats on the spectator benches.

Our case was a civil case. No prosecutor and cops to justify being dismissed. The judge introduces himself and the lawyers and the plaintiff and the defendant. We learn this is a medical malpractice case and will last a couple weeks. This will prove to be a problem for me as I was set to begin a trial in my child advocacy job the following week.

Then each of the jurors is asked to stand and introduce himself or herself and answer a few simple questions about occupation, marital status, etc.The people at the tables include the now de rigueur jury consultant with a sheet of post-it notes, one for each potential juror. The consultant and the lawyer all note the answers to the judge’s questions. He excuses jurors because they know the plaintiff and because of job conflicts and work history.

Alas, my prior law enforcement career, my child advocacy, my enrollment with the health plan being sued, and my pending trial are not enough to get me excused. I take a seat as juror number five and settle in for opening arguments.

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