Recently, I was summoned for state jury duty. I always see jury duty for what it is: an important public service, a civic duty. Millions of good people have died for my right to a trial by jury, so I figure the least I can do is not to bitch about it or try to get out of it and just show up on the appointed day, which I did, armed with a book in hand, since the wheels of justice often are very slow to move (in which case was true).
As luck would have it, there was only one case that needed a jury that day, and it was a civil case, which, here in Ohio, only requires eight jurors and two alternates. I went through voir dire and admitted that I knew the lawyers, yet I wasn’t excused at that point. However, ultimately, I was not selected to be on the jury for that week-long trial, for which I was grateful since I had plenty of important things to do at work.
My history with jury duty goes back to my days as a judge’s law clerk back into the mid-1980’s. I have to confess that, prior to that job, I hadn’t given jury duty a second’s thought. Back then, as the judge’s law clerk, I was besieged with requests from people wanting me to help them get out of jury duty. I became somewhat callous and incredulous at these numerous requests, and I used to counter back with this question:” What if we let everyone out of jury duty who wanted to get out of it?”
I would then explain the whole civic duty thing and tell them that juries wouldn’t be either good or fair if the only people who served on juries were those who wanted to serve. Suppose that you or a loved one was facing a serious charge, and you really wanted a fair jury. Would you like your chances with only those who want to be on juries to exercise a little power, or would you want a cross-section of your community peers to be there?
I told them that I would want the latter, right about the time that I would tell them that their request to get out of jury duty was denied. I told them that the odds of getting picked to be on an actual jury were very small because most cases settle on the courthouse steps before trial, so that, at most, it would be a slight inconvenience. While I’m certain that I didn’t make any friends doing this, I hoped that the people would come around to my way of thinking.
As a practicing lawyer, I actually served on two criminal juries and was foreman on one of those juries. We reached a unanimous guilty verdict in an I-12 drug trafficking case. While the other jury was impaneled, the DA and the defendant reached a plea bargain agreement, thereby obviating the continued need for the jury, so we were excused. That one would have been an interesting trial because it involved a defendant who’d robbed a convenience store armed with a squirt gun, which the DA was trying to treat as a real gun for purposes of the aggravated robbery charge.
The jury that I was on that reached a verdict was a very educated jury for a cross-section of the public-at-large. I wasn’t the only lawyer on the jury of 12; there was a plaintiff personal injury lawyer also on that jury, as well as a Ph.D. and two others with master’s degrees. Nevertheless, I was astonished at what some of the jurors during deliberation thought was important during the trial. We had to hash through quite a bit of irrelevant nonsense, which wasted a lot of time, before we were able to discuss the facts actually adduced at trial. It really opened my eyes as an office lawyer who spent very little time in a courtroom.
However, I used to employ my jury experience often in my estate planning and tax practice. I used to tell my wealthy clients who were contemplating intra-family litigation about my jury service and experience, and that it was my opinion that they should redouble their efforts to avoid litigation at all costs. I explained that they had no true peers of equal or greater wealth down at the courthouse, and that there was a great likelihood that they’d be painted as spoiled rich kids who were complaining about nothing, wasting the court’s precious time.
I told these desirous wanna-be litigants that these courthouse people, including judges, may well dislike them so much that they could go out of their way to make sure that they lost their case. I told them that the chances were far better if they just continued trying to work things out.
This tack didn’t usually endear me to these often self-righteous souls who wanted to spend lots o’ principal over principle. However, my sworn duty as a counselor at law, which I took very seriously, required that I impart that advice. Thankfully, in just about all of those situations, cooler heads prevailed, and they avoided litigation.
Jury service is an important civic duty that we all must take seriously and agree to serve when asked. There aren’t many places on this planet where a trial by jury is a right. It’s a precious right that must be buttressed by a public willing to serve as jurors.