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Jury Duty - Take 1 (continued)

(A continuation of a previous article)

Richard, the trial court administrator, sat down with four unhappy and still damp jurors in the courthouse cafe.

We all had the same experience, so we all had the same story to tell. Each of us interrupted our busy lives to fulfill our civic obligation. Instead, the slow security screening process left us outside in the rain long enough that we missed the jury orientation session. To add insult to injury, the jury coordinator told us that we couldn't be excused and would have to reschedule.

The other jurors were visibly and audibly very displeased. I was the least annoyed of the bunch, because I'm such a dewy-eyed optimist. Or perhaps it had something to do with my profession — I deal with things that Don't Work™ all day every day and I was naturally curious to understand the way that this particular system failed. (I'm also the guy who, at a large team outing to play laser tag, tracked down a significant scoring problem to an interaction between two particular equipment packs.)

Richard explained that the security screening process that morning was unusually slow. This was the first time to his knowledge that a significant number of jurors were "late". Our first suggestion was that the courthouse should open before 8AM to give people time to get through security. He said that they already do that on days when they expect large crowds, such as when they need a larger jury pool due to a high-profile case. They didn't expect a problem on Wednesday, so the doors opened at their regular time instead of 15 minutes early. The obvious problem with this approach, we countered, was that it doesn't help to open the doors at 7:45 unless people know to be there at 7:45. The mailed jury summons and the telephone instructions both instructed us to arrive at 8AM. In fact, the telephone instructions said that the doors would not be open prior to 8AM! Somehow, surprisingly, this hasn't caused a problem in the past.

I had been skeptical about the level of security required at a courthouse, cynically thinking that it was some sort of 9/11 response, but Richard volunteered the reason for the security before any of us asked: There have been a number of serious incidents in that courthouse in the past, including guns being pulled on judges and jurors, suicides, etc. He commented that of the several courthouses he's worked in, this is one of the most secure. He also said that the jurors themselves were a major part of the slow security screening, because they wear or bring enough metal to regularly set off the metal detector. The summons and the telephone instructions were both very clear about the importance of not bringing dangerous objects and minimizing metal, but it would appear that most people don't take it seriously.

A few people, like myself, do pay attention to the summons and telephone instructions and wish they had mentioned standing outside for a long period of time. Another juror suggested that if we had known we'd be spending 40+ minutes in the rain, we would have brought warmer coats and umbrellas. Richard agreed that the court could easily advise people to be prepared for the weather.

We asked if it was possible to delay the jury orientation if security screening was backed up. He explained that it wasn't, because the schedule for the rest of the day depended on the jurors being available on time. This sounded reasonable to me — if the jury is on the critical path, it makes sense to go ahead with the 200 already present instead of waiting for the last 20. (There were roughly 230 jurors called up Wednesday, though I don't know how many were already excused.)

I suggested that when the jury orientation is about to begin, but there's still a line for security, they should send someone out to collect the jurors and move them to the front of the line. Richard took that suggestion very warmly and noted that they could implement it immediately.

Another troubling fact that was brought up was that jurors and other parties to the trials stand in the same line. This makes it possible for the jury pool to be tainted by conversations between people who shouldn't be talking to each other. Richard recognized this problem but no one had any practical solution. Opening an additional entrance was too expensive.

In the end Richard didn't "help" anyone by dismissing them from jury duty, but I was impressed by his professionalism and his genuine concern. He dealt with three quite upset people (plus me, but I'm easygoing) without ever becoming upset himself. He was articulate and explained the facts rationally and I never felt that he was trying to hide behind excuses. He listened to us and treated us like real people and it was plain that he was paying genuine attention to our concerns. He looked us in the eyes when talking with us. He even wrote down our suggestions. After the other three jurors had left, I thanked Richard for talking with us and noted that I thought he handled the situation very well. He thanked me for telling him that, and it was the sort of thanks that comes from people who aren't told often enough that they're doing a good job.

I rescheduled my jury duty for Friday.

Tiny Island