Saturday, September 22, 2018

Middlesex Jury Duty

Last Monday I was summoned for jury duty at Middlesex County Courthouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  This is the second time I have been summoned for jury duty since I moved to New Jersey, but the previous time I was excused when I called in the night before.  No such luck this time.  However I wasn't selected for a trial Monday which fulfilled my obligation and means I am exempt for the next three years.

There is an information page for jurors but I don't think it was as helpful as it could have been for first time jurors like myself who aren't familiar with how the system works.  So I will describe my experience in some detail.

The reporting time was 8 AM.  This is earlier than I am used to getting up so I was paranoid about arriving on time.  I left my townhouse around 7 AM.  The drive was about 30 minutes and it took another 10-15 minutes to drive up to the fifth level of the parking garage, walk back down and walk a couple of blocks to the juror entrance.  So I got there about 7:45 AM.  Although the entrance was theoretically open at 7:30 AM when I arrived they were just starting to send people through the metal detector.  So I had to wait in line for the metal detector and then in some more lines to be checked off a list and get my juror badge.  It seemed clear no one would have cared much if I had been a few minutes (or maybe as much as an hour or so) late.

Once you are processed you are sent to the juror waiting room.  This was a big room which appeared to hold about 200 people.  It is important to realize that it is not a courtroom.  So while (as the juror information page states) lots of stuff is banned in courtrooms (like reading books or newspapers) it is all fine (within reason) in the juror waiting room.  So you can bring a book or electronic device to occupy yourself with while waiting.  You should also bring a bag to stuff it all in (out of sight) if you are summoned to a courtroom lest you be asked to leave it behind.  Fortunately I had done this without knowing for sure it was okay.

Once in the juror waiting room you are shown a short movie giving general instructions and extolling the virtues of the jury system and welcomed and sworn in by a judge.  Then you wait around.  Short smoking breaks outside are allowed as long as the staff knows where you are.  From time to time a list of about 40 names is read out.  These people are led away to a courtroom where a jury is selected for a particular trial.  There were 5 such lists (two in the morning and three in the afternoon) read out while I was there.  I was the first name on the second list so there might have been more (but probably no more than one) lists read out in the morning while I wasn't there.      

Once in a courtroom you are told a few details about the case and the names of the parties, their lawyers and potential witnesses so you can make the court aware of any conflicts.  If I understood correctly this was a civil case involving an automobile accident in Pennsylvania (it was unclear to me why it was being tried in New Jersey).  You are also given a list of questions you will be asked so you can look them over and be prepared when the judge questions you.  Then you are called up individually so the judge (and attorneys) can question you (semi-privately) at what was called a sidebar.

I was the first name on the list so I was the first person called up individually.  I was soon excused when I told the judge (entirely truthfully) that I sometimes have trouble staying awake.  I felt a little bad about this as I definitely didn't want to be selected and this felt a little like shirking.  However I also didn't want the judge yelling at me for falling asleep and listening to boring testimony after lunch is legitimately the sort of thing I might have trouble staying awake through.

In any case there were other questions on the list that might have gotten me excused.  One asked if you would give any different weight to the testimony of a police officer.  I expect the answer they want is no but I was prepared to justify at length why I would.  Another was about my view of  "tort reform" and I was prepared to expound at length about the deficiencies of the American tort system in my view.  I also had an issue with the introductory video we were shown which advised (among other things) that we might want to give to more credibility to witnesses who seemed confident.  It is my understanding that academic studies have shown this is bad advice, that confident witnesses are no more likely to accurately recall events than hesitant witnesses and I would have complained about this given an opening.

After you are excused from the panel you are supposed to go back to the main waiting room which I did.  However you are also supposed to check in so they know you are available to be called for another panel.  I didn't do this immediately because I didn't realize I was supposed to (although I expect they told us this several times somehow it didn't register).  I didn't figure it out until after the first panel had been selected in the afternoon so I unintentionally reduced my chances of being picked for a jury a little.

We were given an hour for lunch.  Our parking was covered but only for one interval in the parking garage so driving anywhere would have meant paying for the afternoon parking myself.  Fortunately there are a variety of deli type eating places within a few blocks.  I walked for a while and eventually bought 2 slices of pizza and a coke for about $5.  Which was edible if not great.  Then I walked back and went through the metal detector again in plenty of time for the afternoon session.  

We were repeatedly told we were obligated to be there until at least a certain time (4:12 PM if I remember correctly) no matter what but in practice we were let out a few minutes early once they they were sure no more jurors would be needed that day.  If you are selected for a trial you are required to show up for the duration (absent some sort of acceptable emergency excuse).  A few extra jurors are selected to allow for attrition but don't participate in deliberations unless needed.  For my panel the judge said we should be prepared for the trial to last all week (until Friday) although he was going to try to finish by Thursday.  This I expect wasn't including deliberation time which can sometimes be lengthy.

So all in all a tedious but bearable exercise if you are prepared with something to keep you occupied.  And fortunately my employer will still pay me for Monday as the $5 juror pay isn't going to go very far.