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February 28, 2007

Done with jury duty

I'm officially done with jury duty. I got sent home without even being questioned. Unlike a lot of places, New York only makes you sit around for one day. If you haven't been assigned to a trial by the end of day one, you're off the hook.

The best part about jury duty is the introductory video. The video begins with an A&E-style montage on the history of juries. According to the voiceover, the ancient Greeks invented the jury. Then, the ancient Romans did away with jury trials--cut to Jesus in his crown of thorns. I guess that's a good way of illustrating what can go wrong without a jury trial. Then we see some more pictures of water torture and swords and stuff from the pre-jury days. Finally, Charlemagne invents the jury. Then Diane Sawyer explains we shouldn't feel bad if we spend all day in the waiting room because  sitting in the waiting room is an important way of participating in the criminal justice system. That's because there are disputants in courtrooms throughout the building who are negotiating better because they know alert citizens are on call, poised to become jurors at any moment.



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That second paragraph is my favorite blogosphere paragraph today. Jesus as an example of problems with bench trials is brilliant. Next: as an example of the problem of animal sacrifice, witness the near-tragedy of Abraham and Isaac.

Houston has the same type of jury system, and, in fact, was probably the originator of this system. I was selected for a jury one time, but by the time we got to the courtroom, the case had been settled, and everyone was gone but the judge--because the defendant knew the jury was on its way.

According to the voiceover, the ancient Greeks invented the jury. Then, the ancient Romans did away with jury trials--cut to Jesus in his crown of thorns.

This is, without a doubt, the single greatest piece of legal education ever devised.

Do they never mention the rise of juries in English common law?

Jury duty is "one day or one trial, which ever comes first" in Middlesex county and probably all Mass. I've been called 3 times, served once.

It is very true, especially in the New York legal culture, that even the theoretical presence (and much more the actual presence) of a bunch of jurors cuts through the bullshit and gets the parties to brass tacks. The bigger the case, the farther out from opening arguments reality sets in-- though moreso in civil cases than criminal ones.

Down South they have more of a culture of trying civil cases, even big ones that in New York would be view as business propositions and settled late in discovery or after dispositive motions.

The terms of jury service are the same in New Jersey and Washington, DC - one trial or one day.

As Alon points out, the use of juries in English common law has a closer connection to the American system than either Athenian juries or Carolingian courts.

The prisoners at Gitmo won't be tried by a jury.

They will be tried and sentenced to execution by military officers appointed by the exective branch.

How is that consistent with ideals going back to the ancient Greeks?

Maryland introduces its video on the jury system with a medieval trial by ordeal (drowning). Certainly gets people's attention. I hadn't heard about it and thought they had spliced in a bit of Lord of the Rings by mistake.

I get off too (too much liberal education).

According to the voiceover, the ancient Greeks invented the jury. Then, the ancient Romans did away with jury trials--cut to Jesus in his crown of thorns.

Actually, the Romans were like to follow the local custom. In the case of Israel, that gave them the option of stoning people, etc., for things as various and sundry as masturbating. Long live the justice of the Old Testament!

I'm disappointed that you weren't selected. I think you would have made a great juror!

As an alternative, how about staging a Virtual trial? You could try Dick Cheney for Crimes Against Humanity. You find a prosecutor and defense attorney to make the case (opening statement, evidence phase, rebuttal, closing arguments) and you select a Jury from the site's "regulars" - put everyone's name in a hat and select 6 or 12 at a time to voir dire. The opposing attorneys get to reject the jury selections and you go 'til you have the final bunch.

I think you should be the judge. There is one key similarity between the judge and the jury - both are to be impartial. I have also found the ability to be impartial to be a fundamental part of Liberalism. As a liberal, I am open to the idea that I may be wrong about an issue. So I have to be able to listen dispassionately to the facts and arguments against my position to tell whether I am on track or completely off base. In a Liberal society, things improve because we are able to change based on evidence. Conservatives think they have all of the answers, so when they fail, their response is always more of the same. Sound familiar?

Defense attorney: "Mr. Levy, what do you do for a living?"
Me: "I'm a graduate student."
Defense attorney: "What's your source of income, then?"
Me: "Ph.D. students get their tuition waived plus a living expense stipend."
Defense attorney: "Who did you vote for in 2004?"
Me: "I didn't vote."
Defense attorney: "Why not?"
Me: "Because, um, I didn't trust any of the candidates for office and didn't see much difference..."
Defense attorney: "Let me remind you, you're under oath."
Me: "I thought the difference between the two candidates wasn't worth getting jury duty over."
Defense attorney: "I have no objections to Mr. Levy as a juror, Your Honor."
Judge: "Mr. Greenwald?"
Prosecutor: "No objections, Your Honor."

Having sat on several juries that weren't allowed to complete their deliberations because the parties settled, I've come to think that the deadline for making a deal should be moved up to the moment the jury takes its seat. Once a trial starts, the jury decides. Not only would this save enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars that are wasted now while lawyers for the various parties play chicken, it would greatly lessen the need for citizens to loll around courthouse holding rooms at $5 (or whatever) a day. As edifying as this exercise of citizenship can be, mostly jury duty is a huge waste of resources.

I wonder if lawyers sometimes strike people with academic philosophy backgrounds? A person trained in criticizing arguments may not be the ideal juror that some lawyers have in mind...But I always figured you could get out of jury duty by, say, showing up with Das Kapital to read.

"According to the voiceover, the ancient Greeks invented the jury. Then, the ancient Romans did away with jury trials--cut to Jesus in his crown of thorns."

A picture of someone being tortured in the Star Chamber would have made more sense. Popular revulsion against the abuse in the Star Chamber was one of the many currents of feeling leading to the English Revolution, and was a reason why the English Bill of Rights, passed in 1688, included the right to jury trial and the right to cousel.

the idea that any 12 yahoos off the street could send me to prison for years is terrifying to me.

How about a test of logical thinking for juries, instead of a Jesus video. If you understand that arguments like

Some mammals fly
Bats are mammals
So bats fly

are invalid, you're in. If you think the argument is valid, you're out.

Yeah, I dug the video too. I really liked the scene of the peasant's family rushing into the pond to pull his motionless body out of the water after he "won" his trial by ordeal.

"I wonder if lawyers sometimes strike people with academic philosophy backgrounds?" Lawyers LOVE people with an academic background in Philosophy. My background is in Philosophy and Math (although currently working as an Engineer) and although the issue has only been touched on once in my experience during selection, the effect was almost magical. The one time it was mentioned that my undergraduate and graduate work was in Philosophy, I was being considered as an alternate juror, the regular jurors having already been selected. The prosecutor and defense attorney had a side conference and they made one of the previous selections the alternate and put me on the jury. I ended up being the foreman in that case.

Lawyers want to have their arguments understood and they tend to believe that they have the better argument in each case. I'm not sure if this is a matter of arrogance or not. However, step one is having your points understood. That makes the philosopher attractive in this scenario.

I think TomK is right. Though the idea of having your "peers" judge you sounds nice because it's all egalitarian and democratic, the reality is often very different. I tremble at the mere thought of my fate being entrusted to 12 people, some of whom can't wait to get home so they can watch reruns of "The Dukes of Hazzard" on Spike TV.

Not that I have a whole lot of faith in judges either. Two words: Antonin Scalia. If he were a judge back in the Old West he'd probably have been called a "swinging judge".

Jury duty is "one day or one trial, which ever comes first" in Middlesex county and probably all Mass. I've been called 3 times, served once.

It's the whole Massachusetts state court system. Once you're through with your one day or one trial, you're officially off the hook for three years, though I think it's your responsibility to maintain records of your service--and, come to think of it, I don't know where I put the slip from the last time they tapped me, so they may be able to call me up again.

However, this does not apply to federal courts in Massachusetts--I know someone who ended up on a federal grand jury and had to keep going back there once a week for, I think, many weeks.

I've been called three times; the first time, there was a phone number to call the night before and they said they didn't need me--if that happens you're not off the hook for three years. I've never gotten very close to actually being on a jury, but I did get inside the courtroom the last time.

...oh, and actually it's "one day or one trial, whichever is longer", but I think that's what you meant.

No, wait, that's not right either.

I think it's one day if you don't get on a jury, one trial if you do.

What a coincidence. I have jury duty tomorrow, Brooklyn Supreme.

I once worked as a paralegal, in the Public Utility Regulatory group of a major firm, but that was not what got me off one jury panel during voir dire. When asked what I did for a living, besides telling the attorney that I was a paralegal I also mentioned that I had once worked as a copyeditor for a legal publisher. That garnered questions as to the publisher and what area of law I covered. I explained that I had worked in the trial and evidence division of Matthew Bender and had worked on texts concerning torts and damages, malpractice and evidence, etc. I was asked if I "knew more than the average person about rules of evidence". I answered "yes". The case was a civil suit steming from a slip-n-fall in a supermarket. The plaintiff's attorney looked at the defense attorney, they both looked at the judge. Heads shook up and down, the plaintiff's attorney turned back to me and said, "I hope you don't take this personally, but you're excused from this panel."

While I understand some people's reservations about the jury system, I have to ask: would you prefer any of the alternatives?

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