Almost, but not quite jury duty.

06 September 2022

Disclaimer: This blog post is not legal advice. Nothing in this post or my site in general are legal advice. I am not a lawyer. I just want to reassure folks who might be nervous about jury duty.

A couple of weeks ago I got one of those little cards in the mail that said that I had been tapped for jury duty. Since I moved to the Bay Area about a decade ago, I get them every couple of months so it wasn't really a big deal. However, this was the first time that I actually had to go to the courthouse for it because every other time I found out that I wasn't needed, which I'll touch on a bit later. It was a bit stressful for me because I didn't know what to expect, so I figured that I'd write a little about the parts of the process that I went through to help other people. I won't talk about the case in question or anything overly specific, in part because it's possible that it might be illegal and in part because it might prejudice the jury that got picked (or be construed as such), so those details won't be present. That'll come up again later.

The jury duty notice that I received stated that I had to call a phone number or visit a website the Friday before I had to go in after close of business (1700 hours local time). Of course, the website in question was offline (probably a maintenance window, though there are a few places that really do shut their webapps down for the weekend (I don't get it, either)) so I phoned in. The hotline I called asked for the serial number on the jury duty summons card and then informed me that I had to go in on Tuesday the next week. I was also advised to call the number again after close of business the day before to find out if I was still needed. I was.

You don't have to dress formally to attend jury selection, just nicely. I went in plain black jeans, a polo shirt I haven't worn for quite a while, dress shoes, and a sport jacket. Other folks were a bit less nicely dressed but nobody said anything about it. The second time I left the sport jacket off.

I don't know anything about the actual trial process (I didn't make it that far) but the jury selection process wasn't anything like what you might see on television. The court deputy (formely called a bailiff) was surprisingly personable and explained how to act in the courtroom: Unless ordered, don't stand up when the judge comes in (that might be a "during the trial" think, I don't know), no recording inside the courtroom, phones had to be muted and/or in airplane mode. Interestingly, the court deputy was unarmed; the chandelier-o-gear was present but the holster for his firearm was empty. He still had the tazer gun on his left hip, though.

Trial juries (as opposed to grand juries) consist of 12 people to 15 people, 9 to 12 jurors and three alternates.

We were split into two groups, called panels. Panel A and panel B. I was on B. Panel A had been called in that morning at 0900 (and were still in a separate room in the building, attending via telepresence), panel B at 1330 that afternoon. When the judge came in he was remarkably polite and personable. He swore us in and explained how the jury selection process worked, told us a little bit about the case, and explained the rules behind a jury trial (which are pretty much what you would expect if you've watched any television). Three things the judge asked us were if any of us would not be able to serve on a jury if selected (trips that we'd already paid for, medical conditions, things like that), if we had done any research on the case (none of us said we had, because we didn't know what the case was going to be), and whether we had done any research on getting onto or serving on a jury. One person in my panel admitted to having done so and was questioned at length by the judge about the sites they went to, what they found, and what they thought about it. So, protip: Don't do any research before you get called in for jury duty because you'll be asked a lot of pointed questions about it if you did.

Also, and even though it doesn't need to be said, don't lie. You're under oath and perjury is a felony.

There was a certain amount of discussion over when we'd have to report back to the courthouse to continue the jury selection process. It was decided by the judge that 0900 hours local time the following Wednesday was when we would report back to the courtroom.

Rather than interacting with the lawyers we were given an extensive questionnaire, 22 pages double sided, that asked a great many questions about our backgrounds, our jobs and professional experience, where we've lived, and our opinions about a great many things. Some were relevant to the case, some were background questions that seemed to point toward any prejudices that we might or might not have had, such as our opinions of law enforcement, the US criminal justice system, civil rights, and whether or not we were members or supporters of any professional or social organizations that might have some relevance to the case. Some of the questions dealt with our mental health or if we had any physical or mental conditions that might affect our duties as jurors. The questions were pretty invasive and very personal. Many of the questions were essay questions and required in-depth explanations. It took most of us so long to work on the questionnaire that courthouse security came around and ushered us out because they were closing up the building. I wound up dumping my questionnaire into the box outside the courtroom, incomplete but done enough. I figured that when I went back to court a week later the judge and lawyers would ask me about the questions I didn't finish (and probably a few of my answers).

A week later panel B was back in the courtroom. As it turned out, most of the jury had already been selected from panel A and only 15 people from panel B were randomly chosen (so we were told, I don't know anything about how the list that was randomly sorted was assembled or whether or not our questionnaires were involved). The rest of us were dismissed, our jury duty considered complete for another year.