The last time I was in a courtroom was a couple years ago; traffic court in the bowels of the Daley Center. I don’t remember what the room actually looked like, or what the actual building materials were, but here’s what it felt like: Concrete and black, concrete and black. A strange kind of lighting that seemed both light gray and dimly unfocused. Breathing air comparable to what you might expect in a well-sealed turnpike lavatory. Scowls a-plenty. The surly fast-food of the justice system, slapped onto your plate with a rusty spatula.
Today, I was in federal court on South Dearborn Street, across from the Federal Building. As we jurors entered the courtroom to begin voir dire, all rose, including the judge. Dark wood was everywhere, from the tastefully curving lawyer’s tables to the spotless paneling that went from the floor to the high ceiling. Decorum and courtesy abounded. If they had offered us tea and biscuits, I wouldn’t have thought it odd. The proceedings went quickly and efficiently, but no one was trying to rush.
In all fairness, I imagine the gloves come off to some extent once the trial actually begins, but at this point in the process, no one wants to piss off the jury – not the plaintiff, not the defendant, and not the judge. Let’s face it – they need us more than we need them.
Though I’ve done jury duty before, this was the first time I’d actually made it this far and been interviewed in front of the judge and lawyers. The questions were about what you might expect – state your name, occupation, place of residence, and various personal history details. If the judge heard anything puzzling or potentially pertinent to the case being tried, he might ask one to go into detail on some point.
I ended up not being selected for that particular trial. They needed to select eight jurors out of the 23 of us who were sent to that courtroom. I’m actually a little disappointed – I want to know how this one comes out. It’s a wrongful termination lawsuit, brought against a large bank by a white male who contends that he was fired because of gender and racial discrimination.
There is a cliché about how people don’t want to serve jury duty, and how they will do whatever they can to get out of it. Or if they have to show up, they’ll contrive some reason why they are unfit to serve on a jury. Think of it as a low-key version of Corporal Klinger’s tactics on M*A*S*H. I’m happy to report that I saw very little of that attitude today. Most of the people there seemed, perfectly happy (or at least willing) to serve. There was one woman who appeared to be trying it, though. As the judge was wrapping up the interview process, she raised her hand and told the judge that she felt there were way too many lawsuits being filed in this country. Maybe she thought that just making the statement would be enough, because she didn’t have much of a follow-up to it. The judge asked her if she thought this would compromise her objectivity in this particular trial. She paused before stammering something like, “Well, I’d have to hear the evidence first.” The judge pressed her on this point, and though she tried to avoid giving a direct answer, she couldn’t ultimately bring herself to say that she couldn’t be objective. I’m happy to report that she was one of the eight who were selected to be on the jury. The judge had begun the process by telling us all very clearly that there was no magic word that would make him disqualify us, so we should please not try to find one. I would speculate that he felt the same way I did about what this one prospective juror was saying – that it was nothing more than an attempt to get sent packing, and he didn’t wish to reward the effort. It is worth noting that the lawyers for both sides were present for all of this, and either side could have eliminated her from consideration with the merest word, but chose not to.
Tuesday is Veteran’s Day so the court will be closed, but I’ll probably be back there later in the week.