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In late October I received a summons to appear for jury duty on December 6. This is old hat for me. Apparently, I am one of the lucky ones. This was my fifth summons for jury duty. One of the ladies there stated her age and said it was her first time. Her stated age was three years’ higher than my own. One of the judges came in to speak with us while we were waiting. The highest number she had ever heard of was a lady in her eighties who had been summoned six times.
If you have not been summoned to jury duty, or not been summoned lately, the process works something like this. You may receive a jury qualification questionaire. These days, such is filled out online. This may be a new thing or limited to some courts. I do not remember having filled one out before this current go-round. I received the summons to participate in the questionaire last summer.
Then you receive the summons for jury duty with a date. You may get a deferment or plead health, etc., by following the instructions that come with the summons. My summons was dated 29 October for a report date of 6 December. My county district courts apparenly summon a new pool of potential jurors monthly.
Nowadays, there is usually a call-in system where you can find out if you’re still needed. You call it the evening before your report date or each evening during your term of service in the jury pool. The courts summon a number of people based on how many cases are in progress and should see the jury phase for a given date. Many of the cases settle in one form or another before the jury trial date comes. For civil trials, it may be a settlement between the parties. For criminal cases, it may be a plea bargain. The judge who visited the jury assembly room yesterday mentioned that even having the jury pool present on the court date can spur action on the part of defendants to settle or plea. All of the cases on her docket for the upcoming week settled yesterday morning. Sometimes, enough cases settle early that they decide they don’t need jurors to come in or only a portion of those who received the initial summons. Thus the call-in system was born. Thank goodness for such modern technologies.
If you do have to go in, there is usually a jury assembly room where the prospective jurors are given a brief orientation and then wait to be called. You might want to bring a book. Depending on the court that has called you up, it could be a long wait. The first time I was called up, it was for a one-week period, and it was before the county I was living in at the time had instituted the call-in-the-evening-before system. I had to drive into the county seat every day that week and wait in the jury assembly room. Only on the last day did I get selected as a potential juror and saw the inside of the courtroom, but never got into the box. I did get to watch the voir dire for other veniremen, though.
Speaking of which, once you’re in the potential juror waiting area, whatever your court may call it, the clerk or clerks of the judge or judges for which you have been summoned may come in with a list. They will call the list of names. The number they call will depend on how large the jury is and other factors. In the court I was in yesterday, they would want seven jurors (six and an alternate) for a criminal trial and five for a civil. For the one criminal trial that actually went through at this small district court, they called about thirty veniremen to get the seven jurors. “Venireman,” or perhaps these days it’s “venireperson,” is a person who has been summoned for jury duty but not yet empaneled on the jury. Those who are called will follow the clerk out and go to the courtroom for the voir dire.
Voir dire is descended from Norman French, as many legal terms are, and originally was voire dire, “to speak the truth.” In the US, the term is now used to designate the questioning of veniremen to attempt to establish any prejudices, and so forth. It is the process through which some number of prospective jurors is whittled down to an actual seated jury.
What happens after that? I have no idea. I have never gotten that far.
My first summoning experience was more than a quarter-century ago. The county I was in at that time did not yet have the call-in system. My jury duty period was a week. I got to drive in about a dozen miles to the county seat each morning. I was in the jury assembly room for most of that week. Around noon each day, we were given the chance to experience the joys of restaurants available to us in beautiful downtown Mount Clemens. I was finally called into a courtroom and got to watch the voir dire process. I believe it was for a civil trial, rather than criminal. The jury was selected before I ever made it to the box, and I and the others who did not make it were sent back to the jury assembly room. Being at the county seat and at the main county courthouse, that assembly room was very large, easily large enough for a couple of hundred people.
One of the books I brought with me for that stint was Ferrol Sams’ Run with the Horsemen. A first cousin of my mother’s recommended Ferrol Sams to me. She had gone to Mercer in the same period as Dr. Sams did, although she was closer in age to John Birch (who had nothing to do with the society that was named after him posthumously). If you’re a Southerner or had a Southern upbringing, the book may explain things about your life that you never consciously thought about. It is semi-autobiographical about Sams’ childhood, and has some embarrassing scenes but also some hilarious bits. One of my favorites was where the young protagonist had just destroyed several acres of cropland and his father was heard to say, “You know, he’s a good boy. He minds well. I just can’t think of enough things to tell him not to do.” If you laugh out loud while reading a book in a jury assembly room, people look at you really funny.
My second summons was after the same county had installed the new call-in system. I called in five evenings in a row and was informed that I would not be needed. That was a wonderful thing, especially since I was badly needed at work.
My third experience was in a different county. In this one, I do not remember the terms of service offhand. I did have to go into the main county courthouse in the county seat. I was called to the courtroom and made it to the jury box for the voir dire. It was a criminal trial. I thought I was going to get on, but there was this one question: “Are you related to or close friends with any policemen, and if so, can you be fair as a juror and not prejudicial towards believing the policeman?” After I got through listing the close relatives who are or were law enforcement officers and all the ones from their departments I had known, I don’t think the defense attorney really cared whether I thought I could be objective. The police sergeant who was there to testify was shaking his head with one hand covering his mouth as he tried not to be seen to be laughing.
My fourth summons was for Federal Court. That would have meant going to downtown Detroit. If I remember rightly, it was another where I called in and was told I was not needed after all.
My fifth summons was for the county district court less than a mile from my home. That was for yesterday. I went in with about fifty other people. The jury assembly room only had about five empty chairs. It’s a small district court with only two courtroom and two judges. Shortly after our orientation video, about thirty people were called to go into one of the courtrooms. We who remained in the jury assembly room mostly read. Those of us who had not been called were finally dismissed around 12:30 PM with no more trials needing juries for next week. (Yesterday was jury selection for trials next week.) I brought along Michael Henry’s 5 Star. (Review to come later today, but short version: good novel.)
It was an interesting dynamic yesterday. As the room filled up, almost everyone tried to be as far from everyone else as possible. This became increasingly more difficult as more people arrived. There was one seat, the middle in a row of five up against one of the shorter walls of the room, where it was occupied by three different people. The first woman got up to use the lavatory, and another woman arrived and sat down there. When the first returned, she took the fifth seat in the row, but then the second woman got up to use the lavatory, and a third newly-arrived woman sat down in the middle seat.
Despite being a hermit and curmudgeon in my normal dealings, I had struck up a conversation with a few people before the assembly room was open and check-in had started. One of the other gents sat with me at a table, and we talked. He had been through a recent trial on a misdemeanor count related to his business and pursued by the recently ousted city manager. The former city manager of our suburb is apparently now making big rocks into small rocks, but the experience had left the other businessman with a bad attitude towards jury trials. “If I ever have something like that happen again, I’ll just leave it to a judge.” Guess who was the first name called to go through the voir dire for the one trial yesterday? A third guy who had sat at our table never even looked at us. Eventually, he discovered a blank spot against a wall and took his chair over there so as not to interact with humans. This seemed to be more of an issue with those under thirty than some of us who are a bit grayer and longer in the tooth.
My third time on jury duty, I believe we could bring in phones and computers to work on in the jury assembly room, but that was enough years ago that things have changed. No recording devices of any kind are allowed in the court building. And since most cell phones are cameras and portable computers have audio and video recording capabilities, none of them are allowed in. Apparently they had problems with people recording courtroom events and then editing video to make it appear as if things had happened that had not happened, so everyone suffers.
There are instructions that come with the summons. Among the instructions was this gem: “Please dress appropriately for the courtroom. Shorts, jeans and T-shirts are not allowed.” (They need an Oxford comma.) Despite this being right in the instructions, I noticed that at least six of the fifty potential jurors were wearing jeans. I did not notice any T-shirts, although there were sweatshirts and hoodies. Also, there were no shorts, but December in Michigan seldom has weather conducive to shorts. There were no suits, and I was the only male who even had a sportcoat. A few of the women were appropriately dressed, but I saw at least two pairs of yoga pants. No, ladies, yoga pants are not appropriate for wearing in court. Now, if I were a judge, I would be a bit worried about people selected as jurors who can’t follow instructions. Forget about being a judge, just as a citizen, I am concerned about that. Yet the veniremen who can follow instructions are the ones who will probably be eliminated first in the voir dire.
Et Vous, Ricochet
Have any of you had experiences you would like to share about being on jury duty? How many times have you been summoned? Perhaps you are a lawyer and have gone through the voir dire process from the other side? Any thoughts to share?