This has been an interesting first part of the new year, for me. Very little time at home because of helping a friend with post-op care in January, and then February and another first -- Jury Duty! For the eleventh time in my life, I was called to Jury Duty. It never occurred to me that I would be accepted to serve because I had been a Court Reporter and that was usually the signal to bump me off the list. Eleven calls; eleven rejections. It's been very disheartening, having always believed that serving on a jury is, first of all, an obligation but, more importantly, a privilege and an honor.
Don’t know why the first eleven principals felt I couldn’t be impartial - that is, until I was actually called to the box and questioned under voir dire. The concern was, of course, potential bias for one side or the other – although, of all people in the courtroom, with the exception of the Judge, the court reporter is the only other involved person who gets to hear both sides of a case from start to finish without pre-conceived notions.) But, there was also the very real concern that during deliberations, having a courtroom background, other similar trials in my past would be recalled and could influence the other jurors. Once I assured them that I could set aside any echoes of the past until after the trial, I was finally accepted as a juror – on a first-degree murder case. I was that little old gray-haired lady, Juror #6, who truly believes that serving on a jury is an honor. OMG! I’m a stereotype! (See cartoon above.)
But, as an American citizen, serving on a jury is a call to service that you must respond to and then explain why the timing is not right. Along with paying taxes and obeying the laws, you cannot ignore the Summons and think it will go away. No, that kind of foolishness will simply draw the wrong kind of attention.
American Rights Include American Responsibilities
We all like to speak of our “rights” as Americans under the Constitution, starting with the Bill of Rights. Speak of them? -- we demand them, loud and clear -- and then try to slip in a lot of “assumed” rights. ( My Mother never would accept that she didn’t have the ‘right’ to drive, that it was a ‘privilege,’ and that it could be taken away. And, I’m sure you can add your own stories about the confusion between rights and privileges.)
But, as citizens, we also have civic responsibilities. As a democratic society, we are given an opportunity to be active participants in our government and, in spite of what makes the news (because, it IS news and not a common event), I truly believe that we are a nation of far more people committing their lives to helping others, involving themselves in their communities and local/state governments, raising their children to become a supportive citizenry who obey the laws, using the polls to show their displeasure with representation, paying their taxes, than we are the malingerers and malcontents so often depicted in the media.
To enjoy the privileges of a democratic society, we have responsibilities that include:
- obeying our laws
- holding elective office
- getting educated to prepare us to live within our society and take over the reins
- participating in our governing bodies
- and, respecting our own and other’s rights so that we can continue to preserve them for our future generations
Changes, Then and Now
As a former court reporter, I was very interested in observing the evolution of the trial process from when I worked the beat. I was a freelance reporter for the VA-MD-DC triad, as Virginia only provides for state-paid reporters in the federal courts. You were hired by either plaintiff’s or defendant’s counsel to cover the proceedings but you were, in fact, working for the State as an impartial reporter, filing your transcript with the court and a copy to the hiring attorney. Additional copies could be ordered at any time within the next seven years – the time the reporter was required to keep all notes and records.
Changes I noticed since the 70s and 80s:
· Counsel was less flamboyant than in my day, remaining seated during questioning, only approaching the witness to hand exhibits
· Videos were a natural part of the presentation for either side (but setting up and removing the screen could be a little more streamlined). As we’re all from a television-viewing world, positioning the large screen across the room, angled to face the court and jury, would have been more efficient and very easily viewed as needed. Sound could have been placed closer to the court and jury. We have the technology.
· Jury chairs were fixed in position facing directly towards the opposite wall, while the witness was seated at position 3:30, requiring the body to stay turned uncomfortably for the entire day in the chair or develop a crick in the neck because of facing the witness
· Jurors were given copies of documents throughout the trial to follow along on technical testimony, making it much easier on everyone
· Attorneys marked their own exhibits as opposed to the court reporter marking the exhibit for the record
· The stenograph machine was hooked up to a laptop with software that not only showed the syllabic formation of words, but the actual transcript, itself, as it occurred – even though standard notes were still made using hard copy. I would have loved to have been seated next to the reporter to follow along, but I was occupied in Seat No.6
Jurors Are Not Cavalier in Their Service
The initial jury pool was large but, for one reason or another, many were allowed to postpone service until later, and the seats had to be filled. While some excuses were valid, under the law, there were other excuses that were jaw-dropping in the hope that the claimant wouldn’t have to serve. The best was, “I don’t like the police!” It didn’t work, but it did lighten the mood. Finally, we were a jury of twelve and two alternates, and the case began.
Regardless of the initial reasons for not being able to serve, those that were not excused, when empaneled, took the oath with full intent of performing their duty to the best of their ability. The somber task of deciding how someone must live the rest of their life is not easy nor is it a decision that any of us could take lightly. Television invariably shows juries exhibiting humorous behavior in the courtroom; but, it is a very different story when a real life is involved. You would want the same attention if you found yourself dependent on others to determine your future and it is our American right to have as fair a trial as possible. We will be hearing closing argument this week and then be sequestered to deliberate. Yes, it is an obligation, a privilege, and an honor – and, it’s scary.