Trial Run

Greg Dawson is eager to be called for jury duty—except when he’s not.

High on my list of enduring mysteries is the fact that most adults dread jury duty the way kids dread bath time. They will do anything to get out of it.

I don’t get it. By nature we are all judgmental (admit it) and voyeuristic in a PG way about other people’s lives. If we weren’t, Big Brother wouldn’t be about to start its 18th season on CBS. Jury duty pays us to be judgmental flies on the wall of other people’s lives. What’s not to like?

I’ve been on four juries—three civil trials, one criminal—and enjoyed every minute. Not only the opportunity to weigh in with my opinion and get a free meal, but also the chance to spend quality time with a cross section of fellow citizens I would otherwise never know.

So, after a five-year drought that had me jonesing for some judging, I was thrilled to receive a postcard in the mail ordering me to report for duty. For the average citizen, jury duty likely is the only time you’ll ever be treated like a celebrity by strangers.

From the moment you pass through security at the Orange County Courthouse, you are ushered, protected, and catered to. When you enter the courtroom everyone stands up as if you were the president entering the House chamber to give a State of the Union address.

With free Wi-Fi, computer plug-ins, a cyber cafe where you can surf the Internet, books, magazines, and games, vending machines, comfortable seating, and a fully loaded (but not free) snack bar, the jury assembly room is like the community center of a condo complex—or a minimum security prison.

Smokers are allowed 15-minute furloughs, er, breaks outside, but are given pagers and a gentle warning: “You can’t go roaming around the courthouse trying to get married or divorced.”

Jury duty is also like being back in kindergarten. We were greeted by a cheery court worker, Maria, speaking from a stage with purple drapes, U.S. and Florida state flags, and fake plants.

“Good morning, everyone!”

“Good morning,” we murmured.

Maria frowned. “We have 270 people in the room. I think we can do better.”

“GOOD MORNING!” we chimed.

 Then we all stood up, faced the flag, and recited the pledge of allegiance. What next—juice time?

Maria announced that 15 judges had requested jury panels. “You should not feel ashamed or embarrassed if you are not chosen.” My number—536—was not called the first three rounds, but I was feeling no shame. Just boredom.

I killed time watching the TV screens above us scrolling photos and fun facts about judges in the Ninth Circuit Court. 

“Aunt credited with making first Key lime pie.” “Has dogs named Lucy and Jackson.” “Enjoys ballroom and west coast swing dancing.” “Shot at more times as firefighter than Marine.”

Round four, my number was called. Even though it was totally random, I felt special at that moment. We filed into the 19th-floor courtroom where everyone was standing, staring at us.

“I’m sure everyone here was very excited to receive their jury summons,” one of the attorneys joked to us.

Actually, I was excited when I received it weeks before. But a critical family obligation had come up, and now jury duty was coming at the worst possible time. The case, a wrongful death suit related to a traffic accident, could last for days.

The judge said the attorneys would be asking us questions during jury selection because “they need more information about your ability to be fair and impartial.” Meaning, fair and impartial in their favor. That’s the way our great system works. Whatever. All I knew was I had to do something to make myself persona non grata in that courtroom.

Thinking maybe this was the judge whose aunt made the first Key lime pie (allegedly), I considered venturing the opinion that I despised Key lime pie.

That didn’t seem relevant to the case, so I said that my years as a consumer columnist left me permanently, passionately biased in favor of the common man vs. corporations. No lie, though I might have been less emphatic had I wanted to be chosen.

Apparently that was enough. I got tossed.

There was no hint of shame or embarrassment among the dismissed jurors leaving the courthouse—more like relief and merriment. This time, for the first time, I was happy about being rejected too.

How to celebrate? I knew just the thing.

A slice of Key lime pie. 

Categories: Column