Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Court or Not to Court

As I told many of you, this week I had jury duty in good ole Harrisburg, PA in the Dauphin County courthouse. I wasn't looking forward to it for any number of reasons.

First of all my day job is being a high school teacher. It's not easy writing lessons plans for an entire week. There are so many day to day issues you deal with as a teacher to insure class flows smoothly and the lessons unfolds as planned. As a PE teacher there are even more last minute adjustments and decisions made to insure maximum activity with minimum horseplay. So I enlisted all kinds of promises from my peers to help my substitute run my classes. Despite the perceived availability of teachers, certified PE teachers are difficult to come by. It's also the semester ending this week so I had many grading issues to deal with.

The second issue distressing me was the mere idea of driving into Harrisburg at rush hour in the morning to a destination unfamiliar to me. The vague directions to the parking garage to be used confounded mapquest and then a short sentence instructed you how to enter the courthouse with no hint of how to find your way to that door from the parking garage. And as my fellow northeasterners know, yesterday during the morning hours we were attacked by monsoon like winds and rain.

But I packed my bag with a book, a jelly sandwich and carrots for lunch as well as a tall bottle of water. I allowed myself 4o minutes for the less than ten mile trip. It took me 38 of those minutes to navigate to the parking garage. Fortunately a number of other confused jurors were searching their way from the garage to the designated entrance and we found it all of us a bit wetter and unhappy than needed. There we stood in line for another ten minutes for our turn to go through the metal detector. I'm pretty sure I could have sneaked six different kinds of weapons through but we managed. After entering, we were checked off on one sheet by an impatient lady, given a metal button to wear proclaiming us jurors in bright orange letters and then passed on to a table where we were given parking vouchers. So kind that we didn't have to pay for parking to do our civic duty. Then we had to sign another paper and finally were instructed to sit where ever we wished in a sprawling room full of chairs set up in rows.

Now these chair were old, not as in lovely antiques, but as in old heavy duty furniture of the age of my parents. Old, straight backs with uncomfortable seats and armrests more decorative than useful. They were placed tight against one another so putting your arm on one of the rests usually meant jabbing your neighbor. It took them nearly the entire first hour and a half to check everyone in. After that, one of the judges gave us a lecture on civic duty and thanked us for being there. I'm all for doing my civic duty duty but don't speak to us as if we had a choice on being there. No one laughed at his jokes which sounded much like a campaign speech.

After that we were seated in pools of between 28 and fifty jurors. My pool, the first one seated waited for an hour and a half before we were told our case had been settled out of court. I read over 150 pages during that time. After that my pool milled around until lunch break. I appreciated my foresight in packing lunch. The dinky cafeteria was very expensive and crowded and it was still raining too hard to go outside. Read fifty more pages at lunch and then after we were seated in another pool. The young man seated beside me turned out to be a former student. It was the best part of the day to see him and later another of my former students came up to speak with me. Ahh, it so wonderful to see them grown up into fine young men.

Without going into more detail, I can tell you I wasn't selected for a jury. I'm not sure why but my oldest son suggested I probably had bad body language. I admit it, the lawyers in the civil case did wear on my patience as did the bumbling of some of the court workers. They've been doing this a long time and had no excuse for massive waste of time caused by disorganization.

At the end of the day, those of who weren't selected for a jury were sent home and told our duty was fulfilled for at least three years. Hurrah!

I thought I might learn something interesting to use in my writing with this experience. Instead I learned our court system, at least in my county, works at a sluggish inefficient pace. There were numerous employees standing around with little to no duties. I heard them discussing what books they had finished the week before and what they would start this week as a couple of their cases had settled out of court and they would have plenty of time to sit around and read at work. On my tax dollar.

And speaking of dollars, PA pays its jurors a whopping $9 per day plus mileage. The nine dollars goes to my employer though they had to pay a substitute ten times that to fill in for me. The gas dollars will probably be about three bucks. The compensation is set by the PA state legislature, the worst over paid state government in the USA.

I also learned that lawyers and judges are seldom as well-spoken, clever or interesting as portrayed on TV. The entire day may have been the most boring eight hours of my life. The only thing keeping me awake was the uncomfortable chairs. I learned you need no organizational skills to work in that jury room. I'm pretty sure they've been doing things the same way for decades. If I ran my high school classroom with the same lack of common sense I would lose my job amid the chaos.

On the other hand, most of people working there were very kind and actually were grateful we had showed up to do our civic duty. The people there as jurors seemed honestly intent and serious about their responsibilities.

Have you had any experience on jury duty? Good or evil? Does your state compensate you at a reasonable rate? How would you run things differently?


  1. I've been called twice, Sue, and never had to serve (most of the cases also settled out of court, and the second time, they never got to me in the selection process).

    I did this in different counties than you, once in Perry, once in Cumberland, and things were a lot better than you're describing. I mean, there was a ton of sitting and waiting, but they seemed to be working the whole time, even if I wasn't, and the process was efficient. Guess I lucked out!

  2. I haven't been called yet - can I knock on wood on the Internet??

    I'm a fellow teacher and hate, detest, despise setting up for a substitue teacher. It is so much work!

    My court duty fear is that one of my former students or one of their parents will be in court that day. Awkward!

  3. I was shocked at the very 'overstaffed' feeling in the court house, Natalie, especially when I know the county has laid off people.
    Jemi, I didn't know you were a teacher also. It was actually very nice seeing my former students. They showed me pictures of their kids and asked me about all my children.

  4. Jury duty sounds the same there as it does in CA (so do government workers). Only twice have I been actually told to report and only once did I get to the pool to be interviewed and they got rid of me pretty quick when they saw how opiniated I was. Now that I'm unemployed I might be more receptive to serving, but I don't know if I'd make that fair of a jurist. I they look like a gang member -- Guity!

  5. I had jury duty this past fall. It was a little better organized than what you describe. Mileage was paid based on the route they chose, not the actual route you took.

    I served on a trial. The defendant was a 76 year old heroine dealer who had an 80 year old girlfriend accomplice. I kid you not. I learned so much about heroine and the sale of it that my street cred is now platinum rated.

    Being a former teacher for 10 years, I also second the getting ready for a sub. I would go in sick and muddle through instead of doing all the work to get ready for a substitute.

  6. I've been called in twice. Once I served on two traffic cases. The other I was dismissed. I got a letter for federal grand jury, but never heard from them after I sent in the form. I think putting my occupation as "writer" sent up red flags & I didn't get called.

    Straight From Hel

  7. Serving jury duty seems to be one of those things everyone has a story about. I have to remember, Helen, about putting down writer instead of teacher as my occupation. Do you think the fed court was afraid you would 'immortalize' them in your prose?

  8. I've never been called, but my husband has and his stories pretty much sound like yours. Hope your classes ran smoothly in your absence!

  9. No major disasters in my classes while I was gone but I'm glad I was released early. I hope I don't get called again. Ever.