I recently was called for jury duty in my county, which is Essex County in New Jersey. I take my civic duties fairly responsibly, so I filled out the form and showed up right on time on my assigned date. The jury management office in Essex was rebuilt just a few years ago, and relative to the other places where I’ve done jury duty in the past, it was quite luxurious. The seats in the waiting rooms were fairly comfortable, not the old molded plastic auditorium chairs. There was free wifi and a computer lounge with library-like carrels where you could sit in relative privacy with your laptop. The waiting rooms offered a choice between three TV channels, CNN for news and politics, ESPN for sports, and another one for the usual “lifestyle” shows. The public address system worked relatively well and you could hear the announcements, and there was a free coffee dispensary with 4 Keurig machines. Essex County is a relatively large urban county and the courts are busy, so there were a lot of people waiting to be called out to the courtrooms for possible selection. But the management area was spacious enough to keep things fairly comfortable. So I could not complain at all about the waiting and processing area.
And yet, I was pretty miserable from 8:15 am on Tuesday when I first reported right through 12:15 pm on Wednesday when I was released. I had been called to a courtroom for final evaluation each day, but both times I was excused for various reasons beyond my control. So I didn’t wind up sitting on a jury. And that’s probably for the best, because I just wasn’t in a good mood about the whole thing. Yea, I watched the video that they show you right after your report, where the Chief Justice of the NJ Supreme Court tells you what a great duty it is to a free society that ordinary citizens like you be used to judge their peers whenever the courts are called on to resolve a dispute. And I agree with that theory. But still . . . I don’t know, there was just something I found unpleasant about being a stranger in a crowd, being ordered and herded around by anonymous bureaucrats as if we were in a prison or in the military. Now I know a little better why most people don’t like prison or being in the military.
Funny thing is that I don’t remember ever feeling this way about jury duty in the past. Somehow, most of my past experiences were in places where the crowds were smaller and you were usually addressed directly by a human, you weren’t herded into a big room awaiting the next announcement from speakers mounted in the ceiling. And maybe I was spoiled by my past experiences. I was never selected to a jury in my life, despite 4 or 5 previous jury duty rounds. In every case, someone would come into the room around 3:30 and tell us it was OK to go home, we didn’t have to come back next day. But last week, I got through Tuesday only to be told on the PA that we had to come back the next morning at 9 am. Ugggh, I had to go through this all over again. I know that they have always had the right to do that, it says 2 days right on the summons. But still . . .
Well, I got through the second day with another trip to a courtroom, and another dismissal after sitting through two hours of introductions, explanations and filling out forms. I got back to the jury management area just after noon, braced for another afternoon waiting for the next list of people for a jury panel. But finally, some humanity shone through. The guy at the desk said “OK, you’re through, you can go”. And on my way to the door, I got into a short conversation with the guy behind me, who was a first day potential juror and thus was told to come back for the afternoon. Another annoying thing about jury duty is that you are surrounded by people, yet almost no one talks. You feel alone in a crowd of people who are also all alone. Well I guess it’s not so bad now, we all have our smartphones and use some of the spare time texting our families and friends. And there is good reason not to break the ice with those around you, given that you need to pay attention for the next announcement, and hey, you’re not going to be there long anyway. Still, it seems so strange to be in a big crowd of people who just won’t talk to each other.
I’m not saying that this is a big injustice that needs to be rectified somehow. Still, there was something about the scale of the crowd and the methods of managing it (all quite reasonable and efficiently executed, given the circumstances) that irked me. I just felt a little bit less human and a little bit more isolated, even though it was just for a few hours. I’ve heard that if you get picked to be on a jury, the mood changes, as you then are given some importance and acknowledgement for the decision that you will need to make. I hope to be retired in a few years, and at that point I’d like to finally sit on a real jury and see what it’s like.
Right now, though, I’m busy at work and have a variety of things to tend to in my home life, so spending 4 or 5 days in a courtroom trying to resolve someone else’s problems would be a real pain in the butt. Some people of course enjoy the opportunity to be away from their jobs, but I do not, since a lot of my duties are time-critical, need to be finished and submitted at just the right time. An unexpected 4 or 5 day interruption would bollix up my general routine. And as I said, despite the amenities, the process of registering and waiting to be picked is also irritating in a busy county like Essex.
But now it’s a memory, and I’m immune from jury duty for 3 years. To be clear, I’m not complaining about the jury management set-up in Essex; the people there do a good job all considered, and the facilities are about as nice as you could expect. I would not encourage anyone to try to get out of jury duty unless they have an absolutely legitimate excuse; we all need to do our public duty. It’s just that at this particular point in my life, jury duty was a little burr in my saddle. But that burr didn’t last long, thank goodness, so it’s on to the next burr. I try to focus on the positive aspects and experiences of life on this blog, but the saddle burrs are also sometimes part of the journey. So I thought I’d share this one. Happy trails, even if that’s only West Market Street or South Orange Avenue!