Duty, Bound

I got the notice in the mail about a month ago. I was instructed to report for jury duty at 8:15am on September 2, 2008. Being a night owl, and a late sleeper, I was relieved to learn, when I made the required phone call the weekend before, that I didn't actually need to report until 12:30pm.

I arrived in the cattle yard of the Monterey courthouse on time, but had the devil of a time trying to find a place to park. Me and a good 80-100 other potential jurors. I checked in with the clerk then waited with the crowd for another hour with nothing to do except use the rest room. The one I was directed to required an airport-style security check, which seemed to be more trouble than it was worth, so I decided to grin and bear it. Shortly thereafter I discovered a more easily acessible facility just steps away at the county health office.

At 1:30 names were called and the herd was run through the metal detector, then prodded upstairs into a courtroom so crowded that many potential jurors were forced to stand. The room was poorly lit with cool white fluorescents in the middle, which the dark paneling did not adequately reflect into the gloomy sides of the room. Anxiety engaged as I realized the government had absolute control of my life for an as yet undetermined amount of time.

Judge Robert O'Farrell entered, thanked us for attending, and explained the stuation. This was a civil trial, a wrongful death case involving a nursing home. It was expected to last three weeks. But he assured us this afternoon's selection process wouldn't take too long.


Twelve names were called and these persons were told to sit in the jury box. They were then asked a series of questions. Did they know anyone on the witness list? Were they able to serve three weeks without hardship? Did they have any experiences with nursing homes that might affect their judgement? Several more questions were asked and every so often a juror was dismissed.

As each seat was vacated the questions were repeated for the replacement juror. Sometimes they might go through 8-10 prospects before getting someone who passed the questioning. After a couple hours of this, it looked like they had twelve people who could serve and be unbiased. Then the judge told the plaintiff's attorney he had the right to dismiss any juror without cause. The attorney, who I had now come to view as the prototypical ambulance chaser, did just that, and we began all over again. And again, and again, and again. As soon as he picked someone he rejected another. And another, and another, and another.

At first I was hoping they wouldn't call my name. After awhile, I was hoping they finally would. As each juror was rejected the remaining cattle let out ever more obvious groans of frustration. It was a ridiculously inefficient process, repeating the same questions over and over and over again as each juror was called and rejected. At 4:30 Judge O'Farrell said we would take a break, and resume at 9:00 the next morning.

A new day, the same story. Over and over the plaintiff's attorney rejected people he had previously accepted. Others were dismissed by the judge for hardship reasons. I was finally called at 10:15am and dismissed two minutes later.

I don't know why they interview one juror at a time. If we had been asked the questions collectively I think most of the rejects could have been weeded out in the first 45 minutes. Many courts use a written questionnaire, which would have saved some 80 people a lot of time as well. But since this is a government operation, it doesn't have to make sense, much less be efficient.


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