Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Jury duty, and other forms of public happiness

Yesterday was kind of a weird day. I had been summoned for jury duty, which meant that I spent the first half of the day in the Santa Cruz court system. I ended up in the first pool of prospective voters, and, not hugely to my surprise, I was excused in the first round of voir dire, where the lawyers for both sides get to pick a certain number of people to eliminate without having to provide reasons. That means that you don't get to know what you said that made you unsuitable but I do know that it was the prosecution's side that voted me off the island.

Sometimes people try to get out of jury duty, but I wasn't aiming for that. I wasn't entirely against getting a break from retail for awhile. Frankly, I'm glad it's over, but I would have put in the time if it had had turned out otherwise. As the judge pointed out to us before things got underway, we weren't there to make things easy on the government, we were there to provide a fellow citizen a jury of his peers. I came home to find Hurricane Sandy in full sway and the topic of most network news. I liked this segment from the Rachel Maddow show, which talked about duties as citizens in a different way. Sometimes what is asked of you is bigger than you, and that's not necessarily a bad thing:

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Being on a jury,however briefly, is one of those things that makes you feel like a citizen. I have very conflicting and ambivalent views of the justice system, based on my own experiences. But I was pretty heartened by the way that my fellow citizens showed up to fulfill this duty, despite their busy lives. I think we can all become very cynical about what our fellow Americans are, and what they think and what they know, but I didn't feel that way listening to my fellow potential jurors. The defense lawyer asked people if they were happy when they got their jury summons. No one raised their hands. Nevertheless, despite not being happy, a whole bunch of people turned out on a busy Monday morning to fulfill their civic duty, and as far as I could tell, no one was trying to sabotage their own chances of getting selected. They were thoughtful, and trying to be honest about their reactions to the questions. I had a few issues about the questions, personally, but that's why I'll probably never get selected.

Our former county supervisor, Gary Patton, did an interesting blog post about citizenship and voting today. He quotes the Hannah Arendt Center blog in saying that voting is not the highest form of citzenship.

Hannah Arendt also saw that voting was a deeply circumscribed approach to politics. She once wrote: “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” What distinguished the United States at the time of its revolution was what Hannah Arendt called the experience of "Public Happiness." From town hall meetings in New England to citizen militias and civic organizations, Americans had the daily experience of self-government. In Arendt's words, "they knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else. Public happiness was found neither in fighting for one's particular interests, nor in doing one's duty by voting or going to town-hall meetings. Rather, the seat of American democracy was the fact that Americans "enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions."

Patton took this idea to heart as a county supervisor and held regular morning at the old Caffe Pergolesi. I wasn't among those attending in that time, but I'm pretty sure there was a fair amount of public happiness floating around amid the espresso steam back then.  


  1. My last experience with Jury duty as miserable. Had to go to Cambridge and be there by 8:00 AM, which meant I had to leave home by 5:30 to avoid sitting in gridlock for 2 hours to go approx 12 miles on the highway into Boston. Didn't matter, as there was an accident and I got there just at 8:00 AM. I was so infuriated that I kept thinking " I don't care, if I get picked, I am voting guilty for putting me though all this stress" In the end I did not get picked and got let loose at 3:00 PM, only to sit in another 2.5 hours of traffic to get home, which is about a 40 mile commute. With no traffic it takes me 50 minutes. The Patriotic video they show you, did calm me down, and I ended up reading a good book while I waited. Short stories by Guy de Maupassant, so all was not lost!

  2. I, too, feel like a citizen when answering the summons to jury duty! I like to vote, too. But I love this close look at civic discourse! Yay! Thank you!

  3. Sean, well, I didn't reveal in my post that I wasn't entirely unhappy to get my jury summons. This was because I'm also in a pool to be on a district court jury in our neighboring metropolis, San Jose. You'd think that being pretty far away from the city and without a car would be enough to get me off this duty, but I looked into it and I was within mileage range of having to do this. So I was thrilled to hear that showing up for jury duty actually got me off the hook for further jury duty for a couple of years--not just in Santa Cruz County, but in this district court situation as well.

    A funny thing happened after I was excused and a fellow prospective juror and I went back to make sure we weren't required to sit through a second trial session. A police guy told us that we were really lucky. The next day they were selecting a jury for a case that would probably go on till New Year's.

    I only actually served four hours of jury duty, and I did find it interesting, but even that small amount felt enervating. So I'm glad I don't have to keep showing up to the courthouse all through the fall.

  4. Kathleen, I think voting and jury duty are great reminders that we are citizens. That there is another aspect of lives that we periodically need to acknowledge and appreciate. But I do think Gary Patton and Hannah Arendt's stance on what citizenship is really about is pretty exciting.

    Our local U.S. Congressman, Sam Farr has not only been great about holding town halls, but I've taken part in a couple of phone town halls, which felt very participatory.

  5. Seana, our man Harvey Pekar wrote an interesting story about his experiences with jury duty. If I could find a Harvey Pekar index somewhere, I'd be a bit more helpful.

    Pekar relates his doubts about mandatory sentencing and the sympathetic hearing he received from the judge, as well as a discussion he had with a friend afterward. (He, like everuyone else here, did not get picked.)

    I once covered a murder trial during which a similarly sympathetic judge called all the reporters into his chambers to ask about and discuss the books we were reading at the time. This happened, by the way, in the same court Sean had such trouble getting to, assuming it was Middlesex Superior Court.

    1. Peter- Yes it was Middlesex Superior. Making matters worse. I drink a lot of coffee in the AM and Mother Nature started calling right when I got on RT 93. My kidneys were bursting, and on that highway, there are no options to pull over. I was in agony.

  6. I would enjoy Harvey's take on the experience, I think.

    Jury selection is an odd process. I liked the way the judge and both sides hastened to assure us that our nonselection was not personal. And I think it's a bit odd that, as no one REALLY wants to serve, there is all the same a bit of umbrage you take when you get kicked off. I mean, assuming you answered the questions honestly, which I did. They all hasten to say that it's "not about you", it's just that you might not be right for THIS jury.

    I actually think I'd be fairly competent on any jury going, but that didn't stop the sense of relief I felt when I thought about it that night and knew I wouldn't be going back.

    Jesus, why on earth would anybody be a lawyer? Personally, you couldn't pay me enough.

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  8. It was interesting to observe jury selection at that murder trial I mentioned. One of the prospective jurors was a clergyman, a gentleman of such spotless morals and social standing you could practically hear everyone in the courtroom thinking, "Aha! He'll be the jury foreman."

    So, when the prosecutor used one of his peremptory challenges and rejected him before he could even approach the front of the room to be questioned, the room erupted in laughter. Or at least I remember it that way. I do know that some people laughed.

    That was twenty-seven years ago, and it's odd to think that the then-young man convicted in the case is still in prison, if he's still alive, and will be there for the rest of his life.

  9. Our judge said that in the initial group, people would be falling like endangered species, which I thought was pretty clever of him. All due modesty aside, I had the feeling that I'd immediately get booted or I'd be the foreman of the jury. I don't think this because I'm smarter than anyone else, but just, owing to my own experiences, I'm not all that intimidatable. Well, not on that level of the law, anyway. This was a misdemeanor case. Which, given the budget stringencies that the judge impressed upon us at the outset, probably shouldn't have been tried at all.

  10. The eventual foreman turned out to be a Harvard dean. And a fellow reporter and I had great fun coming up with nicknames for the jurors based on their appearance, dress, and demeanor.

  11. Great. In my case, you would have had to come up with a nickname for a woman who mistook a stain on her shirt for water. I'd like to say that that was a one off, but unfortunately, that would not be the truth.

  12. One of the jurors, a woman, wore a neck brace. The juror who sat next to her was a man of Chinese descent. I naturally dubbed them Mr. Chin and Mrs. Neck.

  13. "a woman who mistook a stain on her shirt for water."

    It would be a gift from providence if she'd been a juror in a money-laundering case.

  14. Unfortunately, it wasn't. Not that I'm knocking providence, because I appear to have benefitted from same...

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  16. In that case, content yourself with the thought that "A woman who mistook a stain on her shirt for water" sounds like a book by Oliver Sacks.

  17. Sean, I had to get there every day from Somerville, where I lived at the time -- piece o' ****. How long ago was your miserable summons? Judge Hiller Zobel wasn't still around, was he? (His wife, Rya, was a federal judge. There can't be too many such couples around.)

  18. It looks like Sean's comment got eaten, so for anyone trying to follow along, it was:

    "Peter- Yes it was Middlesex Superior. Making matters worse. I drink a lot of coffee in the AM and Mother Nature started calling right when I got on RT 93. My kidneys were bursting, and on that highway, there are no options to pull over. I was in agony".