How Not to Get Out of Jury Service
If you’ve ever been summoned for jury duty, you know how I felt in that jury room a few days ago. My heartbeat was on pause, my breath in full bate, as I silently appealed to the gods for my number not to be called. The possibility that my number could be embedded in one of those ominous ranges of digits the clerk was sporadically announcing was cruel enough, but the fact that (in Harris County, at least) the ranges themselves aren’t even called in numerical order — ranges 2360-2507 may be called well before ranges 1501-1652 — well, that, that was tantamount to torture. Those devils.
As it turned out, I was destined to become one of the few, the proud, the hosed. When the range with my number was announced, I stared at the screen for a moment, just in case I’d heard it wrong. I checked my official juror summons again, just in case I’d read it wrong. No luck. I reluctantly hauled myself up from my seat, and with the rest of the cattle, allowed myself to be herded through hallways and into a claustrophobic, malodorous elevator. Outside the courtroom, it was “hurry up and wait” until we were at last permitted entry. For the second time that day, I settled in to sit for an indeterminate amount of time, uncomfortably grazing limbs with the people next to me. It’s very Shirley Jacksonian, the jury selection process—or as I like to call it, “the lottery no one wants to win.” But instead of being stoned to death by my peers, it’s my work and social life that will take the hit. Rest in peace, freedom.
As I listened to the judge explain why we were there, the guy to my right stage whispered, “I’ve had jury duty so many times. They say once you get called, you’ll always get called.” I wondered if he was right. My husband has lived in Harris County since the late 80s and has never been called for jury duty. I’ve only lived here since the early aughts, and I’ve been called for jury duty more times than I can accurately recall. Is jury duty really something that, once you’ve had it, will keep coming back again and again, forever and ever? Is jury duty like toenail fungus?
When I had still been in the jury room, uncertain of my fate, but optimistic that I’d be home by lunch, I’d distracted myself with Facebook. After I posted my #currentsituation, my friend, Karen, encouraged me to revel in the opportunity to meet new people. She urged my writer self to look around at the buffet of characters to find a new story to tell. While I admired her positivity (not to mention her buffet metaphor), I wasn’t convinced. Not only didn’t I want to make small talk with strangers, my previous experiences serving jury duty hadn’t left me thinking that I was among the most interesting segment of the county’s population. And I’m not excluding myself. People just aren’t that interesting when they have to be downtown by 8:00 a.m. and have been kept against their will in a frigid building all day. They’re mostly just grumpy. Even the guy who thinks he’s interesting isn’t interesting. You know the one. He’s served on tons of juries and wants everyone within earshot to know it. He’s the guy that actually wants to serve on the jury and you just know he’ll volunteer for the foreman job. That guy.
In the courtroom, I thought again of my friend’s suggestion to enjoy the buffet and since I hadn’t eaten lunch, the only buffet I could conjure was filled with noodles, spring rolls, and curry tofu. A buffet of characters? If those characters were Soylent Green, I was in. Then the judge informed us why we were there, and poof went my cannibalistic thoughts. Ours was not a standard jury trail voir dire, you see, but instead, we were being considered to serve on a grand jury. Now, things had gotten interesting.
If you live in Texas, you may have heard about the recent grand jury reform in the Lone Star State. The new system uses a random jury wheel to empanel grand juries, much like how trial juries are selected. However, grand juries serve twice a week for three consecutive months. The collective gasps and rolled eyes of many of my fellow prospective jurors told me that not everyone found the opportunity to be one of the first grand jurors under this new system as exciting as I did.
The judge began to ask each juror a series of questions designed to determine eligibility. Among them, questions about our ability to read and write, confirmation that we were all residents of the county, etc. His last question was open to a lot of interpretation: “Is there any reason why this wouldn’t be a good time for you to serve on a grand jury?” My number was smack-dab in the middle of about sixty-five potential jurors, so I listened to a good thirty or so responses before it was my turn. Many people were concerned (and understandably so) about missing multiple days of work. While it’s against the law for an employer to terminate someone for serving jury duty, the employer is not required to pay an employee for days missed. I know. Ain’t that a blip? Some people’s excuses were of the lame, I’m-clearly-trying-to-get-out-of-this variety: “I work retail and if I serve, my boss will just make the days I serve my days off, which means I won’t have any days off!” Okay, never mind. I’m gonna go with her on that one. Other excuses seemed pretty legit. I’m sure there were a lot of people wishing they were still in college.
Then there was this woman:
Judge: Juror Number ##, you’ve heard the questions I’ve asked the people before you. Do you meet the eligibility requirements?
Juror Number ##: (A pause) Yes, your honor.
Judge: Good. Now, is there anything timing wise that would prohibit you from serving?
Juror Number ##: Well…I am the sole breadwinner in my household and I don’t think my boss will pay me for the days I miss.
Judge: Okay. What do you do for a living?
Juror Number ## (mumbles incoherently). But I’m also a single parent. I have a son.
Judge: So you’d like to claim the underage child exemption? How old is your child?
Juror Number ##: He’s 27.
Now, I don’t know what Juror Number ##’s circumstances are, but can we agree that if her 30-year-old son (27 is as good as 30!) is physically able to work, his mother serving on a jury for three months just might be the kick in the butt he needs to get off her dole? After the laughter quieted down, the judge moved on to the next potential juror. I think we were all thinking the same thing: That was not the way to get out of jury duty, lady.
The rest of the afternoon wasn’t nearly as comical, but I have to agree with my friend, Karen; it was certainly interesting. Thanks to her, I’ve realized that as a writer, I should be on the lookout for the stories in every situation, even when the situation doesn’t at first seem interesting. Sometimes a buffet can serve up a real treat when you least expect it.
Joi Maria is a Texas-based short fiction writer and memoirist. Her work appears only on her computer screen, but she is trying to change all that. Find her blog, The Joi of Writing, at joimaria.com.