A few months ago, while we were having a few drinks on the Metro North bar car taking us home to Connecticut from New York City, my buddy (let’s call him Horatio) told me about this wacky system for jury duty in the federal court. Here’s how it works: Out of the blue, you get a summons in the mail telling you to appear on a certain date, which is actually the beginning of a two-month period in which you’re essentially on call. If you show up that first day and get picked for a trial, you sit through that and then you’re done. But if you don’t get picked, the court can call you back as many times as it wants. Outrageous!
Horatio had been summoned three times, but only had to show up once—for what was going to be a six-week trial. Horatio said six weeks would be difficult for him because he was involved in planning a restructuring at work. The judge said, “Ah, the high-powered executive excuse,” then laughed and let him go. I made a mental note of that one.
About a month after I heard this story, my summons for federal jury duty arrived. “Noooo!” My blood began to boil. Why, you ask? It’s not that I have anger issues. In principle, I’m not even against sitting on a jury. I get the civic obligation thing and I think that spending a few days (but not weeks!) listening to a case could be interesting. But I’m reasonably sure that savvy litigators would never pick me because I used to be one of them—maybe minus the savvy part. It’s pretty common knowledge that you don’t want litigators in the jury box. They could decide they would have handled the case differently from you and might negatively influence the jury. So I tend to view sitting being part of a jury pool as an enormous waste of my time.
But you do have to show up. I didn’t get picked the first time. The second time, I got excused because the trial was scheduled to last a month and I said that the deadlines for a publication I was working in wouldn’t go away, so serving on a jury would require me to work nights and weekends for a month. I was really annoyed when I got called in for a third time. I had already missed two days of work.
But you do have to show up. (Did I say that already?) I went in with the idea that I would appear visibly annoyed, maybe even menacing, and try to make a case for getting out of it. While I drove in, I started getting really angry and played out a little dramatic courtroom scene in my head, with me in an Al Pacino-type role: “You called me in here three times, and now you want to put me on a six-week trial? YOU’RE out of order!” But when I got there, the jury clerk, in her likable, tough-but-cheery way, told us this would be our last time. Our two-month internment would be over either that day or at the end of the trial, which would last only four days. I began to smell freedom. And it smelled good. I decided before going into the courtroom that I’d take whatever happened with a polite smile, which is what I usually decide to do in most situations anyway. Maybe someday my big dramatic moment will come.
After we filed—past the lawyers, parties, judge, clerks, and what appeared to be a group of law-student summer interns—into our pews in the gallery, one of the first things the judge told us was that this was a case against Metro-North Railroad by one of its employees. When she said that, I took a closer look at the plaintiff. I wasn’t 100 percent sure because he wasn’t wearing his uniform and signature blue cap, but he sure looked like one of the conductors on my regular evening train.
The way this judge ran selection (which was different from how the previous two judges had) was that she filled the jury box with 16 people and started asking them questions to see if there were any reasons they wouldn’t make good jury members for this trial. If you didn’t get knocked out of the box, you stood a good chance of being picked. Being Juror Number 9, I was in the first group of 16.
After the judge had the lawyers introduce themselves and their clients, and then read off the names of potential witnesses, we were asked if we knew any of these people. I was the only one to raise my hand.
“Juror Number 9, is it?” asked the judge.
“Yes, I think I recognize the plaintiff as one of the conductors from my train.” I gave her my “that’s-kind-of-funny-isn’t-it?” smile.
“From your train?” she laughed. “I guess we should have expected to see some commuters here today.”
I mouthed to the plaintiff the time of my regular train. He smiled and nodded. That was it. I knew I was out. Freedom! Soon the joy was gone, when I realized I’d be returning the next day to the drudgery of my day job and my daily commute that takes nearly two hours each way door-to-door. I’ve done this commute for more than eight years. I did a similar-length commute from New Jersey for five years. It can be exhausting.
I told my jury duty story to my wife and to my train friends, who all placed this in the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up category. A few days later, my wife said, “You know, you have a lot of stories from the train. You should write a blog about it.” She’s a big blog fan. I’m not. But I am always struggling for a topic to write about and when I have had my too-infrequent breaks from writer’s block, I’ve done most of my work on the train. So after a few weeks of my wife telling me how great her idea is, I’ve decided to take her advice. Let’s see where this goes.