A few years back I had been called for jury duty. Again.
There was about a 20 year run where I received a jury summons almost annually. I was starting to wonder what the legal system did without me.
It wasn’t all that bad. You’re on the hook, but about half the time you draw a high enough number in the pool that you don’t get called in, though they do make you wait until Friday after 5pm of your week to thank you for your service and tell you that you’re free for another 12 months.
But this time I had to show up, and it didn’t look good. As usual, they make us show up at 9am and then left us sitting around in the jury room until one of the courts needs another panel of jurors. This time they needed a lot of jurors for one trial as they scooped up everybody in the big waiting room at Downtown Superior Court over on 1st Street and marched us out of the building we had grouped up in and over to the old courthouse building next door, and into the biggest courtroom I have ever sat in. This was a bigger than any set I ever saw on Law & Order and there were a couple hundred potential jurors settling into the seating.
Once we were all settled and waited a good bit, because being on a jury is mostly about waiting, the judge made an appearance. We all rose as the bailiff shouted, then sat after the judge sat and bade us to be seated.
I was once on a jury with a judge who was always already seated at the bench when the jury was allowed to enter the court, thus dispensing with the whole “all rise” routine, but he was an exceptional and insightful retiree, brought back in to help with the backlog of cases, and didn’t have time for any of that sort of thing.
Most judges though, they like to make you stand up to remind you who is running the show, or so it seems.
Once we were all seated and quiet, the judge began telling us about the case. It was a civil case, a mesothelioma lawsuit, and the judge said he expected it to last six months or more.
I had been on a civil case previously that ran two months, and it isn’t as bad as you think. You are not there every day, Monday through Friday, for the whole time. You almost never have to show up on Friday, which is when the court conducts other business. (The local paper once reported that said “other business” seemed to take place on local golf courses, but that still means you don’t have to go downtown.)
Then there are days when the lawyers are arguing over motions and days when the court has other cases to which to attend, so I ended up sitting and listening to witnesses for two or three days a week tops. It isn’t until the decision goes to the jury that you’re stuck in there every day until you can render a verdict.
That was manageable for a couple months, and all the more so since the office I worked in at the time was 10 minutes from the courthouse, but six months or more of being on call, that was going to be painful. I wanted no part of that.
The judge explained a bit more about the case, the multitude of defendants being sued, the lawyers for whom were all shoved shoulder to shoulder at two tables put together to form an L on one side of the well before the judge, and how the plaintiff was not present, would likely never be present, and might not live long enough to see the end of these proceedings.
Then, as seems to be the norm in our jurisdiction, the clerk of the court started passing around a questionnaire that we needed to fill out, after which we would be free until 9am the next morning, when we would all be expected to be waiting in the jury room once more.
I don’t recall much from the questionnaire save for a few questions about whether or not you thought that being a three pack a day smoker might make you more susceptible to contracting the disease in question. The plaintiff, in his job, apparently had to wear disposable protective gloves that were packaged in talc which contained asbestos, and so he was suing anybody and everybody related to his work, safety regulations, and the production and distribution of the gloves in question, and even a clod like me could foresee much conflicting expert testimony coming with the case.
I filled out the form, handed it in, and went on my way, showing up the next day to sit around in the jury waiting room once more. As noted, jury duty involves a lot of waiting, so it helps to bring a book.
When we were finally paraded back to the big courtroom, we all found seats and settled in, hoping our number would not get called.
There was a bit of court business to be done before us. Several of the defendants whom, through various agreements were indemnified against legal action in this case, were allowed to go, which meant their counsel could leave, making more room at the big “L” shaped table so that the remaining lawyers were no longer packed cheek by jowl.
Then it was time to call names.
Having been down this road before, the best outcome, if you do not want to serve, is to not get called at all. They just need a dozen jurors and a few alternates… six in this case… so the odds of that in a room with a couple hundred people seemed pretty good.
But if you’re going to get called up to the jury box, you want to get called early. The first dozen in the box face the most rigorous questioning and, as such, are also the most likely to be excused.
As the questioning goes on and replacements get called, the intensity of the question begins to slacken in my experience. The lawyers get tired of their routine and start taking shortcuts or the judge starts hurrying them along. Rather than asking you direct questions, they will start asking if you have anything to add or say based on the questions you were supposed to be listening to while sitting out in the gallery.
You can get “yadda yadda yadda’d” on to a panel if you’re not careful, unless you’ve put something egregious on your questionnaire. I ended up on a jury that way once, the last one to be called into the box, when everybody was tired and, after a very perfunctory back and forth, both sides announced they were satisfied with all the jurors and were ready to proceed. You do not want to be late to the party.
The clerk of the court stood up to call out the name of the first potential juror… and it was me. I was now juror number one.
I stood up and made the long walk from the back row of the gallery where I had been slouching, into the well, and then up to the indicated seat in the jury box. I was going to be the first person to face questions. I was going to get the most scrutiny.
So I sat there as the clerk slowly called the remaining names to fill out all dozen and a half seats for jurors and alternates.
And then it was time for lunch. We had been there since 9am as instructed and now it was 11:30am and we were all told to be back in the jury room by 1pm. This is how it works on the jury. You are there all day, but if you’re in the actual courtroom doing something other than waiting for more than a few hours it has been a very productive day.
We got called back from the jury room at about 1:30pm and were herded into place in the courtroom to sit and wait for a for a while. Again, waiting should be on the job description. I chatted a bit with the person next to me, who was a nuclear physicist and worked on reactor design. Neither he nor I want to hang out there for six months or more.
On the other side of him was juror number three who asked whether or not we’re getting paid by our companies while we’re on jury duty. We both confirm that were getting paid, which he thought was a sweet deal. He was not getting paid to be there and wouldn’t have minded getting paid to hang out downtown rather than at the auto parts store where he worked.
We had to explain that we would be working late and on weekends because our jobs don’t stop when we’re not there. I’m not sure that sank in, but the judge showed up and we all had to stand, sit, and get to business.
As juror number one the first questions were for me and me came from the lawyer representing BASF which acquired the mine, and the liability that went with it, from which the allegedly asbestos laced talc was procured. He asked about my profession and a few other things on my questionnaire before asking me if I knew anything about BASF.
I started off with the fact that they were German company that made cassette tapes when I was a younger. He interrupted me to point out that while the parent company was indeed German, the portion of the company he represented was based in the US, paid taxes here, and employed American workers, a series of statements directed at the mass of potential jurors in an unnecessarily loud voice, which earned a bit of a smirk from the judge. The lawyer wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to implicate BASF as a bunch of foreigners whom we shouldn’t worry about fleecing.
That interruption gave me a moment to ponder my next statement, which was probably a good thing, because I had been planning to move from cassette tapes straight to the production of Zyklon B for the Nazis during WWII, something that popped into my head when I learned that BASF was on the defendants list. That seemed amusing enough when I was sitting at lunch pondering what to say during questioning.
Now, however, in a courtroom full of people, with the lawyer now waiting for me to go on, and the judge, who had been humorless and stern up until then, giving me a look that was somehow both angry and bored, I wondered if that statement might not be the best plan. Going straight to “you helped gas the Jews” seemed like it might taint all potential jurors in the room… I mean the lawyer had to stand up and protest my naming BASF as a German company… and possibly incur the wrath of the judge. I wasn’t sure I would get in trouble for that, but it felt like a possibility. And I am not, generally speaking, a provocative or demonstrative public speaker.
So in that few seconds of pause, I change my plan. My follow up after the interruption about how BASF was so very American in this situation, was to say, “Oh, and BASF was part of IG Farben during the war.”
To most people that might have been nothing more than an innocuous observation. IG Farben isn’t exactly a household name, certainly not in the US. It was a conglomeration of German companies, including BASF, who profited greatly from cooperation with the Nazi state and eagerly supplied it to help with the final solution. There was a special trial at Nuremburg dedicated to defendants that were part of IG Farben, one of the so-called subsequent trials that took place after the remaining leaders of Nazi Germany were tried.
I wasn’t even sure if this was going to hit the mark, if this “We’re all Americans here” lawyer for BASF was going to know what I was referring to. I have long known that odd bits of trivia that float around in my head are often not general knowledge. I thought I might have to mention gas chambers or Auschwitz in order to make my point, that otherwise I might simply face another deflection about this not having anything to do with Germans or Germany.
But my statement did not elicit the same patriotic response as before. Instead, it got me a quiet, poker face look put in place to cover for some thought process taking place. Somebody apparently knew about their client’s history.
After a moment the BASF lawyer bent over and whispered back and forth with his partner, who then spoke with other lawyers at the big “L” shaped table. Then there was a request to speak to the judge, a short discussion, after which the judge announced that I, juror number one, was excused, thanking me for my brief service.
As I stood up to go, facing away from the judge, I gave the nuclear physicist a little fist bump on the shoulder and I could see the envy on his face, but he gave me a quick smile as I passed between him and the judge. I could see the envy on the face of everybody in the jury box as I squeezed past, I could see it on the faces looking up at me as I walked down the aisle, some clearly trying to piece together whatever magic incantation I had uttered that got me off the hook. It was like I had found the Wonka golden ticket or something.
The court then went through the motions of picking somebody to fill my spot as I exited the room. The BASF lawyer did not even begin to address juror number two until long after I had passed through the doors, though I kind of wanted to stay and see what he would do. Juror number two was a smart guy, I hope he picked up on what I said and found a way to make it and angle for his own exit. The auto parts guy was on his own.
I went back to work and told my boss I would be at my desk as usual, that I had been let go from jury duty.
But I watched that case as well as I could on the superior court web site. It carried on for almost ten months, though from what I could divine, a lot of it was motions. I am not sure the jury spent as much time in court as they might have, but I was glad to not have had to be a part of it all the same.
I started writing this post a couple years back, and it has sat in my drafts folder for a while. Then I told the tale during a group outing to Potshot and Ula, who found it mildly am using, so I figured I would tie it up and post it. Another of my “Not about video games” posts.