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Jan 15 2008

Jury service and jury nullification-1

By a coincidence, while writing and posting my series on the law and religion in public schools, I was also called for jury service and spent the better part of the week of November 5, 2007 in the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in downtown Cleveland.

I feel strongly that the jury system is one of the greatest inventions of modern society and has been the foundation for democracy and creating and preserving freedoms. So I feel that to serve on a jury is a privilege and do not resent doing my time on the jury though it does involve some minor inconveniences and disruptions in work and home routine.

This was the third time I have been called for jury duty but I have yet to actually sit in on a case. For those not familiar with how it works, at least in Cuyahoga County where I live, when you are called for jury duty to the Common Pleas Court, it is not for a particular case but to be part of a large pool of jurors that serve many courts. So much of the time is spent waiting until your name is randomly called as needed if a case cannot be settled and should need to go to trial.

There are forty courtrooms in the building so the pool of potential jurors is quite large. All the jurors wait in a large room until such time as they are called to serve on a panel in a particular trial. The court system treats the jurors well. The jury pool room is well-lighted and spacious, has comfortable chairs, carrels with electrical outlets for people to use computers (but no internet access), plenty of newspapers and magazines to read, jigsaw puzzles, three TVs tuned to different channels in different corners of the room, vending machines and a nearby reasonably-priced cafeteria and, most importantly, a quiet room for those who simply want silence in order to read or take a nap. The court employees who run the operation are courteous, friendly, and helpful and the whole system works very smoothly.

Furthermore, I have been impressed with my fellow jury panel members. They come from all walks of life and occupations and backgrounds, and although there is a lot of joking and kidding around while we are waiting in the jury pool room about what they would prefer to be doing, they all seem to have a sense of duty and seriousness about what they have been called to do. I always feel good about the experience and would not hesitate to put my own fate in the hands of a jury if an event should arise that I am put on trial.

I have been called for four jury panels so far. They usually call a panel of eighteen potential jurors for a civil trial (from which eight jurors and two alternates are finally selected) and twenty-two for a criminal trial (from which twelve jurors and two alternates are selected). Civil trials require only a ¾th majority (i.e. at least six votes) for a verdict while criminal trials require a unanimous verdict.

Once a panel is randomly selected from the large pool in the room, we first assemble in the jury deliberation room for that particular court, and the bailiff tells us the order in which to line up to enter the court and where to sit once we get there. As we march in, the judge and the attorneys and the litigants are already present and standing, and once we are all in our places, the judge tells us to sit. The courts have sense of friendly formality and dignity, with the judge in his robes and the counsel in suits.

Then the voir dire (“to speak the truth”) process begins with the judge asking us to swear or affirm (the latter for the benefit of us atheists) an oath to tell the truth. He then tells us very briefly what the case is about and how long he expects it to last, and then he and the two attorneys ask each juror a lot of probing questions about our lives (such as where we work and what we do, what our hobbies are, how many children and what they do) plus questions about any life experiences or opinions that we may have had that are relevant to the particular case we are about to judge. For example, in one civil case involving an employee being fired, we were asked if any of us had even had problems with our employers or been fired or sued. In an assault case, we were asked if we had been assaulted. This voir dire process can take quite a while, and the rest of the jury panel listen while each potential juror is questioned. On the basis of the answers, jurors can be dismissed either for cause (because, say, they know someone involved with the case) or for no reason. The latter can be done by the attorneys for either side but each has only a limited number of such peremptory challenges at their disposal.

In my very first panel about eight years ago, the two sides made a deal and the case was settled just before the voir dire process even began. The second panel I was called for about four years ago was for a murder trial. There was an exceptionally large panel called (about 40 people) suggesting that the judge felt that it was going to be difficult to select an impartial jury. The voir dire in that case was a very detailed written questionnaire that ran to over twenty pages. I was dismissed from that panel. I had requested to be excused because the judge had said that the case would last at least three weeks and this was the week before the semester began which made it awkward for me. The fact that I had stated that I opposed the death penalty also may have contributed to my dismissal.

The third time I was empanelled (which was last November) involved a civil case, a contract dispute involving an employee who had been fired. I did not request to be excused but after the oral voir dire, I was the first person to be dismissed, by the attorney for the employer. No reasons need be given for such peremptory dismissals so I have no idea what reasons he might have had.

It was in the fourth case (also last November) that I ran into a problem because of my knowledge of the legal system and jury nullification. I will write about that in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Textbook disclaimers

Some readers will recall how in Cobb County, GA the school board inserted stickers saying, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered” into the biology textbooks. This was ruled unconstitutional.

But why do advocates of such disclaimers limit themselves only to biology? Here are some other textbook disclaimer stickers that can be used. Here’s one suitable for a physics textbook:

This textbook asserts that gravity exists. Gravity is a theory, not a fact, regarding a force that cannot be directly seen. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

And here’s a disclaimer that is suitable for almost any textbook:

This book teaches kids the difference between facts and myths. Because this erodes belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and, well, other things, parents should homeschool their kids until the age of 27.

2 comments

  1. 1
    Tom

    Mano, you are to be commended for your attitude towards doing jury duty. Many Americans take our system for granted and feel that the exercise of jury duty is an inconvenience. After being a registered voter since 1972, I as of yet have served any jury duty. From conversations with friends and family that have been called, the attitudes were mostly negative in fulfilling the service. Many do not want to get involved and others view it as an obligation to just get through. Unlike you, the thought of getting into trouble and being tried by a jury of my “peers” really scares me. The thought that a jury that has a significant number of people that don’t want to be there and or also in a hurry to get their “duty” over in the fastest possible way worries me about our justice system. My question is should the jury system be revamped?

  2. 2
    Mano

    Tom,

    The key issue is not whether there is a “significant number” who don’t want to be there. That may be true as a general sentiment After all, we all can think of other ways to spend our time. But what I observed was that almost all of the people took it seriously once they were there. There may be the occasional person who tries to push for a quick verdict just to get it over with but such people are rare and the great majority seem to take the job of deciding the fate of others seriously,.

    One of the things that would improve the jury system is to minimize the “packing” of juries by lawyers. The film Runaway Jury was an entertaining example of how that might happen. That could be done by severely limiting the scope of the voir dire questions and eliminating peremptory challenges. That would result in the original intent of juries, to have a panel of randomly selected people, be better fulfilled.

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