My Jury Duty Summons directed me to call the jury information message line after 5:30PM on Monday, April 15, to see if there was a trial scheduled for that week. But when I called the number at 5:45, the recorded message was for potential jurors scheduled to call in on April 8. I figured the court had had a busy day, and the message hadn’t yet been changed for the 15th. So I called half an hour later. Same April 8 message. Six tries later it was past my bed time, and I quit for the day, not knowing whether or not I had to show up at the courthouse at 8:30 the next morning.
By 7:00AM on Tuesday the 16th the message was still the same, and I was in a quandary: Do I assume there is no trial scheduled, and go on about my day? It wouldn’t be my fault that I didn’t show up for a jury pool. But what if there IS a case to be heard, and I’m not there to perform my civic duty? I couldn’t ponder the question too long – I’d have to leave in half an hour to make it to the courthouse in time. Okay, I decided, I’ll go, and err on the side of civic responsibility.
I like being on a jury, and I like seeing our system of justice up close. A few years ago I served on a jury for a week-long trial in Federal District Court in Seattle. For over a decade, until I retired two years ago, I served the Superior Courts of several counties as a Guardian ad Litem and a Certified Professional Guardian. I was appointed by judges to investigate guardianship cases; I wrote and filed reams of legal documents and presented them at hearings. I wasn’t an attorney; nor was I a paralegal, in that I did not work for an attorney; I guess I was a perilegal (though there isn’t such a word), because I worked, and loved working, on the perimeters of law. And on Tuesday morning the 16th I was looking forward to serving on a jury again – yet another angle from which to view our American jurisprudence.
As I got ready to put my keys and wallet and notebook on the courthouse security conveyor belt, the security guard asked, “Here for jury duty?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “No trial this week.” Another man was standing off to the side; he gave me a half smile and said he’d made the 90-minute trip from Stanwood, only to hear he, too, wasn’t needed. The guard said he was blind-sided about having to inform people – he’d already sent four folks back home, and while we were standing there another five potential jurors showed up.
Do you know what was wonderful about this? Nobody got angry, nobody blamed anybody.
Stuff happens. In fact, when I suggested that despite its flaws I thought our system of justice was probably the best in the world, several people agreed and joined in with examples. By now we were standing out in the sunshine, chatting on the courthouse steps. The guard was talking about his various careers, the man from Stanwood said he had really wanted to be on a jury, and three other folks – strangers before that morning – decided to walk together to a nearby coffee shop that had great home-baked pastries.
I walked back to my car and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Pollifax!” Just the week before, I’d finished a mystery novel titled The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman. And because the book so delighted me, and because Mrs. Pollifax would have loved that scenario on the county courthouse steps, I’ll share with you few paragraphs from the book. What follows is a conversation among the protagonist and “Lulash,” a guard in a remote Albanian prison, and “Major Vassovic” of the Albanian Secret Police. Mrs. Polifax is explaining the American criminal justice system. If you want to learn how those unlikely three came to have this conversation, do read the book.
* * * * * *
[Mrs. Pollifax says]…“it’s in the hands of a jury, you know. It takes twelve people to decide on a person’s guilt.”
Major Vassovic stared at her. “Twelve officers, you mean.”
“Oh no,” said Mrs. Pollifax. “Twelve people. Citizens. Ordinary people. Working people.”
The two men stared at her incredulously. “But then no one would ever be found guilty. Who instructs them?”
Mrs. Pollifax smiled forgivingly. “They are free to make up their own minds from the evidence that’s presented.”
Major Vassovic looked thoroughly alarmed; Lulash looked interested. “Explain to me how it works,” he said.
… “It works like this, “Mrs. Pollifax said…and began diagramming a courtroom. “The judge sits here,” she announced, drawing a circle, “and we will call this the jury box and draw twelve circles here. You will be one of them, and I will be another, and the major will be a third.”
“Please, no,” said the major in alarm.
“It’s only on paper,” she told him soothingly. “And we will pretend that you, Mr. Lulash, are a farmer, and I am a housewife, and Major Vassovic sells ties in a store.”
“What are our political affiliations?” asked Lulash quickly.
“Oh, but that doesn’t matter at all.”
“But it must.”
She shook her head. “No, because this is a court of law and justice. We would be concerned only with the truth.”
Lulash said, “But surely the jury would have been appointed by party officials?”
“No,” said Mrs. Pollifax firmly. “Not appointed at all. No commitments, no ties, no obligations. Absolute freedom to decide.”
“Zott!” cried Major Vassovic despairingly.
“Then surely the judge is appointed?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Pollifax.
“Ah!” cried Lulash triumphantly.
“But the judge has nothing to do with the verdict,” emphasized Mrs. Pollifax. “He cannot decide whether a man is guilty or innocent. That responsibility rests with the twelve jurors.”
Lulash looked bewildered. “He cannot tell the twelve jurors they’re wrong? He cannot punish them if they bring in the wrong verdict?”
“Absolutely not,” replied Mrs. Pollifax.
* * * * * * *
So, the next time you receive a Jury Duty Summons, please ask yourself, “Isn’t this a great system?”