(Note from Mark: As you’re reading this, I’m in Ft. Lauderdale, stuck behind a car that is going 15 miles an hour with its left turn signal on while in the right lane. It is being driven, I think, by a very old person, but I’m not sure, because the driver’s head is not high enough to be seen above the steering wheel. Knowing that I would be languishing in Florida today, I arranged for a guest columnist who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of possible reprisals from the legal system. I, personally, think everything is wonderful with the legal system and that I should not be contacted by the legal system for any reason such us a summons for jury duty or an arrest for a soon-to-be-committed road rage incident.)
First, I’d like to thank Mark for allowing me to post this in his space while he is in Florida visiting his mother and looking for things to write about so he can deduct the trip as a business expense. I will try my best to write in his style so as not to be too jarring to his regular readers.
I’m writing to point out an obvious flaw in America’s legal system and to offer a 4-step, common sense solution for the legal system to ignore.
The problem came to my attention recently when a woman I know informed me that, since moving to a new state just two years ago, she had already been called for jury duty once by the state, and had just received one of those pre-jury-call surveys from the federal government. She felt that this was unfair, since there were probably people who had lived in the state their whole lives and had never been called.
I told her I thought it worked kind of like focus group companies: they’ll keep calling you over and over because they know that, for fifty bucks, you’re willing to spend an hour of your time looking at commercials and answering questions about them while executives from the advertising agency make fun of you from behind the two-way mirror. (I know that Mark, who is letting me use his blog for this rant and who is in advertising, once keeled over in hilarity when some poor sap looked closely into the mirror to pick his nose.)
Similarly, the people responsible for finding jurors, in the time-honored tradition of public servants everywhere, will use the easiest method possible: recalling people who have already shown a willingness to serve. This is called “thanking you for doing your civic duty.”
Look, we all know that jury duty is a pain in the ass, and it can often be a genuine hardship, especially now that they don’t take excuses.
“You just gave birth? No problem. You can put it off until the baby is six months old. Does that help?”
“You run a one-man business that you would have to shut down completely? Well, come on in and we’ll try to get you on the longest possible trial. And, by the way, you can get by on $50 a day, can’t you?”
Yes, I know about the “responsibilities of citizenship” and all that, but I just don’t think the system works as the founding fathers intended. When they considered jury duty, they were thinking of calling in some men to listen to the Widow Jones testify that she saw the town smithy steal the rhubarb pie that was cooling in Reverend Peter’s window (which they could understand because everyone loved the pies the reverend’s wife baked), render a verdict, hang the smithy, and be home by the end of the day to eat their Yankee codfish and flummery* and spend the evening making candles by candlelight (a vicious cycle). I don’t think Jefferson and company counted on cases taking months because lawyers were going to showboat during sensational televised murder trials, or because both sides were going to have dozens of “experts” to contradict each other, or because lawsuits were going to be adjudicated for dollar amounts several times the total budget those founding fathers had for the entire country.
Mark’s wife once served jury duty in New York at Federal Court in downtown Manhattan. One of the other jurors was from Duchess County, a distance from Manhattan known in legal circles as “a schlep.” Are you telling me that, in, say 1802, they were making folks leave their whale rendering jobs in Poughkeepsie and ride several days on horseback to downtown Manhattan (known then as “New York City”)? I don’t think so.
And what about the whole “jury of your peers” business? I don’t mean to sound elitist (and let me remind you here that it isn’t Mark writing this), but that junkie who got arrested for beheading a parking meter to get the quarters is no peer of mine. And neither is the subject of a medical malpractice suit, or some Bernie Madoff-type character. How do they expect some poor schmoe called to jury duty supposedly at random to understand all the medical mumbo-jumbo and reach a sound decision? And if I understood high finance well enough to comprehend white collar crimes, I’d be rich enough to pay someone to get me out of jury duty.
So the first step in my 4-step plan is to sort the jury pool by expertise and experience. That junkie should be judged by post-rehab jurors who can understand what desperation can move people to do…and who could use the $50 a day to buy drugs. Likewise, if Dr. Williams is being sued for leaving a scalpel inside Ms. Petersen, then the jury should comprise of doctors, nurses, and people with inappropriate things inside of them.
The second step is a no-brainer. To alleviate the inconvenience and hardship of taking time off work or away from young children to serve jury duty, use people who are on unemployment. You sign up for unemployment, you go right to the head of the jury duty list. Certainly, there is enough diversity on the unemployment rolls these days to satisfy any “peer” requirement. And if you run out of unemployed people, send a court clerk out with a van to the local “that place” (often a Home Depot parking lot) where the, um, professional gardeners and painters hang out in the morning waiting for contractors to pick them up. Take the ones that are left over after the morning rush and put them on a jury. Sure, most of them won’t do too well on understanding the English-language testimony, but maybe they could wear those U.N. headphones. And, in any case, anybody knows if someone looks guilty.
Did I mention this isn’t Mark writing this?
Step 3: Eliminate the age exemptions. Why don’t people under 18 have civic responsibility? If they’re old enough to illegally purchase alcohol and cigarettes with fake IDs, they’re old enough to serve on a jury. It could even be a course requirement of Social Studies. And what’s up with the exemption for folks over 70? What–Walmart can’t spare its greeters for a couple of days? I know the old folks will miss a word here and there, but if that guy from Honduras the clerk picked up in the morning can render a verdict, so can gramps.
Finally, make it illegal to call someone a second time before everyone else in the state has been called once. The only possible reason for not doing this is sheer laziness on the part of the people who do the summoning. They’ll swear it’s totally random and that it’s just your bad luck that your name keeps getting selected, but I suspect it’s really more like your iPod, where once it plays a song from that Debbie Boone album you downloaded in a drunken fit of nostalgia, it will play another Debbie Boone song long before you hear anything from the Moby album you bought a couple of years back when you were trying to impress your teenager by being cool.
See you soon. (I mean Mark will.)
*For the recipes for these and other disgusting-sounding colonial dishes, visit http://www.gaspee.com/ColonialRecipes.html