Tip: State Court Jury Duty and bored? There’s Scrabble and Backgammon in the coat closet

Juli Kearns Everyday Stories 5 Comments

I phoned in and listened to the recorded message thinking I hope I don’t really have to be paying attention to any of this. No, such luck. Yes, I know it’s my sacred civic duty so tar and feather me already but one of the last things I wanted to do was to be honored with the privilege of jury duty. We’re self-employed and homeschooling. My husband would have had to cancel his studio session today in order to stay home with H.o.p. but his brother, who had just moved down from NY Saturday (“The most frightening thing in the world is waking up and realizing I moved to Atlanta”) dropped by Sunday evening and offered to babysit. Also, H.o.p. was concerned with mom having to go to a government building. He hears enough about the government that concern is the first response (no, not shame on me, shame on them) upon learning that mom is going down to a government building. (“It’s all right, sweetie.” “But President Bush is in the government building.” “Not this government building.”) The kind of concern that isn’t assuaged when he says, “Don’t go!” and I say but I must and he demands why and I tell him the not-so-fine print that the government will hit me with a hefty fine or submit a bench warrant for my arrest if I don’t go, which means a court date regardless. I mean, they make jury duty so inviting in the first place, don’t they? If instead you opened your mail to “Summoning the Honor of Your Presence for coffee and homemade blueberry muffins with prosecution, defense and judge” then I’d feel a bit differently about it, more relaxed, even if the fine-print said the coffee and muffins would be at my own expense. Send me a blue slip that says Summons for State Court Jury Duty 8:15 a.m. Monday or you’re arrested and I get testy.

There’s an old joke as to do you really want to be tried by peers not smart enough to get out of jury duty. My take on it is what’s the privilege of jury duty, fulfilling the right of the accused to a jury by one’s peers, when the accused may simply be one of those not protected by any number of those laws which exempts from libablity anyone who earns more money than the judge. Where’s the justice in a country where we say it is stealing when you take someone’s $75 television but call it profit when you can, for instance, pollute to the point of extinction or pirate the pensions of hundreds of thousands. Where’s the justice when we’ll slap a person in prison who is actually endangering their life with certain select self-prescriptions, but legislate protection for corporations that willfully endanger the lives of thousands. And don’t tell me that a corporation holds the same rights as an individual under the law but is an institution and the owners aren’t responsible for its actions and that’s the way it has to be “because” (kind of just like politicians aren’t liable for anything that they conveniently can’t recollect telling a subordinate to do). When a car-pooling van makes a traffic violation, we don’t call the situation corporate and absolve the driver of responsibility.

I’d not slept but a couple of hours Saturday night. I slept one hour Sunday night because my body decided to wake up after an hour. Marty asked why. I said because I was wild with anticipation.

It having been a sleepless several days, I wondered if I started hallucinating from sleep deprivation during jury selection if they would send me home and my obligation would be fulfilled.

I chose “Spit in the Ocean, All About Kesey” as reading material, because it doesn’t require much focus and would be like porting along a friendly angel, and it seemed appropriate, considering the prospect of sleep deprivation hallucinations. I looked for second choice of reading material but Marty and brother-in-law said I probably shouldn’t carry along too much, and they ought to know as they both have never done jury duty. “Maybe I should take along some cards?” I said, but Marty and brother-in-law said no there would be no room to play and again they ought to know, they both having never done jury duty.

The line at 8:15 was long outside the courthouse. At least, I reasoned the line of obviously disgruntled souls at the center door, a grab bag of humanity burdened with worries of livelihood, was jury duty and that the left door had nothing to do with me as those breezing through it were far too cheerful. I must have looked like I knew. “Is this the line for jury duty?” a passing someone asked me. “Yes,” I said and thought I should have said, “so I assume” and called it out after-the-fact because I would have felt guilty had I not. People walking in and out the left door remarked on wow why so many people this morning and I wondered if there was something especially choice going on where they expected to run through prospective jurors like, well like a body with an intestinal bug only absorbs so much nutritionally whilst heavy purging. Not the best of images I know, but it was what came to me.

Once inside the door, the line snake wound multiple times before you finally made it to the metal detector. If you’re an employee have your ID out, if you are jury duty have your summons out and coat off, an officer stood at the center of the room repeating. It was passed through the line that if you had fingernail files you were supposed to take them back out to the car. Except the man ahead of me turned and rather than telling me this informed the younger woman behind me . She had on make-up and a hairdo and clothes. I had on my racoon-eyed no sleep face. They struck up a conversation.

Thus far, I looked like the kind of a person you ask if this is the jury line but not a person you expect to carry a fingernail file.

Into the little white plastic basket I placed everything in my cargo pockets and my book and tablet. Onto the conveyor belt went it and my coat, the pockets I’d stuffed with toilet paper and a couple of paper towels as I’ve still got a sometimes runny nose from my cold and had been out of tissue paper and hadn’t wanted to carry a knapsack as I’ve gotten used to not carrying a knapsack since everyone thinks you’re going to shoplift or create a headline with an incendiary device. Of course, I set off the metal detector machine though the only metal I knew myself to be wearing was my ring and loop earrings. A wand run over my raised-arms form convinced I had nothing to hide.

Up to the 7th floor to the holding room for prospective jurors which contained both State and Superior Court prospective jurors and was big and reminded of an especially large airport waiting area except there were no windows. Line up first outside an oversized glassed-in theater ticket booth with several guides issuing instructions. Superior Court get white badges and sit down. State Court go to yet another desk at the rear of the room where you sign in and get your own badge. Then to look for a seat but the room was so packed with people, several hundred of them, that I went ahead and sat on the floor, and was the first one to do so for some reason. The seats were all in rows with seating cubes stuffed in awkward areas and I took the first floor spot that seemed reasonable where I could hopefully rest my back against a side of a large cube on which happened to sit several blond women who certainly had been carrying fingernail files and had to go back to their cars or throw them away. I fumbled with my orange badge, knowing the back should come off so I could stick it on my clothes but it just wouldn’t do. I gently folded, attempted to find where to peel. I was already a little anxious. I thought how odd it was that I spent the night installing Apache on my computer so I could have a local server, and tweeked it and installed PHP and MySQL and here I couldn’t figure out how to peel my stick-on badge. It was embarrssing. I asked the blond on my right who couldn’t believe I was asking anyone this, much less her, and turned to the woman on my left and asked her and she looked at me like I was a total simpleton and said fold it in the middle and this time when I folded it in the middle it parted, I unpeeled, I slapped on the badge and sat back as best I could (not) and began to observe the show. The summons had said business casual which everyone had defined as no pajamas or shorts or swimsuits. Most women wore fashionable or vaguely fashionable clothing with cute accents. I believe I was the only one in oversize men’s cargo pants and eight-year-old men’s steel-toed boots from Target (I dress cheap and break my toes a lot) and a men’s oversized hooded jacket from Old Navy and a bandana. But I did have on a nice black v-neck rib knit cotton sweater. If you separated the people off into who shopped at the up-scale malls, who shopped at the regular malls and who probably never visited a mall and got their vegetables at co-ops, there weren’t too many co-op shoppers and most of them were men. One of those men before eleven o’clock asked for a deferrment because he ran a restaurant.

We were treated to a movie of news anchor Brenda Wood telling us we were doing our honored civic duty and were appreciated for it. Brenda Wood said they might ask embarrassing questions and if we were too embarrassed to answer in public we could say so and the judge might grant answering in private but likely not. The videotaped news anchor told us not to discuss the trial with anyone and not to watch the news. I found this amusing.

The video over, I moved to a spot on the floor near the State Court desk where I could rest my back against a wall.

I was surprised to see only a few palm pilots (mostly held by young twenty-somethings), no laptops, few earphones and Ipods. (I don’t have an Ipod or laptap or Palm Pilot–not even a cell phone–but I expect most everyone else to have at least a cell phone and Palm Pilot or Ipod.) There were very few books. Almost no magazines. Very few newspapers. Most people slept in their seats. No one snored. With the colds going around and flu I was surprised no one was coughing or continually blowing their nose. The coffee vendor woman didn’t make an appearance, her station just teased people with its cups. In the holding room one can talk but for some reason can’t talk on a cell phone (what’s the difference) so a number of people gathered at the threshold with their phones.

I said to the State Court woman I understood if you had a child under four at home one was exempt, but how did jury selection tend to look on people who homeschooled and so had children at home to look after. I asked although I knew the answer, that the state doesn’t much care about that or if you are self-employed. She replied homeschooling was my “constitutional choice” and made no difference here.

The bad thing about the holding room is that you’re afraid to walk out to exercise the legs, go to the bathroom, anything, because you never know when they’ll call the next jury pool, besides which you’re not supposed to go wandering anyway unless you’ve officially been excused for a break. I offered a conversational comment here and there on nothing particular, and would get a brief mmm kind of response and so tried to read but shortly decided watching the people was more entertaining. Beginning at 9 o’clock, a woman representing the Superior Court would occasionally appear and read off about 50 names and they’d go to their appointed room and a woman representing State Court would occasionally step up to the mic and read off shorter lists and those souls would collect their things and leave.

Not having had any coffee, getting a mild headache, I was feeling in need of aspirin. I had asked where a coffee machine was. I was told where to find the vending area on the floor. There was no coffee machine, or it was in another dimension. I got a coke. I opened it. It spewed. I took out the few paper towels I’d brought along for my cold (yes still fresh) and cleaned the bottle. I took my aspirin out of my pocket and felt on the offensive taking them, thinking it wasn’t beyond likelihood that a knee-jerk response in a court house would be to wonder if you’re taking an illicit substance. Another woman came back and asked where the coffee machine was. I informed there was none. On the way down the hall I met another woman looking for the coffee machine. I said there was none but the vending area was thataway.

I returned to my spot near the State Court desk. A man on a cane asked the woman where the coffee was. She directed him to the same vending area. She worked on the computer and answered phones. She was having troubles with her computer and didn’t know what to do. Sometimes she’d answer the phone and after a moment quip, terse, “And why aren’t you here?”

Because I’m so good at it (reference lame drawing) I sketched for a couple minutes and realized how there was no difference, as far as carpet, walls, trims, between the materials and aesthetics that went into the courthouse room and your typical post 70s hospital waiting area. The colors were the same as used in the hospital where I gave birth to H.o.p. seven years ago. Cream, mauve and gray. Florescent lights were numerous and bright. Everything looked green.

As seats began to open up, the State Court woman twice commented there was an open seat I could take.

I stayed on the floor. If I had taken a seat I would have been in the midst of the pack and unable to watch or sketch.

A friendly damsel from Louisiana was making friends left and right, lots of smiles, lots of laughter. Those even slightly amenable were drawn into listening and conversing at one point or another. Her husband was a chef and people were amusing themselves talking about cooking raccoon and possom. I spoke up and said my husband’s family was from Louisiana. She said where from. I said where. She wasn’t familiar with the Parishes. Lapse into silence. She and the people around her returned to talking. I had thought maybe when a seat opened up in that area I’d take it but when one did a woman who had been seated for a little while on the floor near me got up and took it instead and I found myself wondering why we’d not been able to strike up a conversation when I’d tried but she immediately fell into laughing good times with the young woman from Louisiana. By the time we were given leave for lunch the young woman from Louisiana had a table full of friends from her general seating area.

If I had grown up in New Orleans I’d be a more likable person than I am, I’m pretty sure of that.

Lunch. I had first stepped outside for a cigarette (I smoke a very few a day still). A twenty-something young man in torn worn dirty jeans and hooded sweatshirt, raveling sweater and bandana came out of the courthouse, nodded passing by, went to a post to unlock his bike. I looked over as he unlocked his bike. He looked back and nodded and smiled. It was somehow one of the more convivial acknowledgements of existences during the day and I don’t know why. It had been raining and cool earlier and now was warm and dirty, gritty muggy feeling. I went inside and back through the metal detector etc. where I once again set it off and they waved the wand around me and a man behind me set it off and he muttered a couple of answers to questions and he seemed a tad drug-filigreed perhaps and the last I heard as I walked off was them then questioning him, “And how are you feeling today, sir?”

In the cafeteria I stood behind the man on the cane who had been earlier looking for coffee. He looked to be about 80. There were people who had stood out during the day and he’d been one of them. Very neatly dressed, suit coat. I wondered what his profession had been and where he was from as there was nothing remotely Southern about him. He turned and looked past me and struck up a conversation with the woman in line behind me. A worker said the lady who made sandwiches was the very best there was. I asked for a tuna on rye sandwich. The sandwich woman started putting white lunch meat on rye. I thought that was really strange tuna salad. She asked me if I wanted tomato on my turkey sandwich. I said no and thought, “Oh well” and let it slide, because I had begun to feel unaccostomed to speaking and I could just as well eat turkey. I paid for my sandwich. I was told a bag of chips came with it. I said never mind. The man with the cane took a seat with the woman behind me, at the table next to the Louisiana woman’s group. I found a seat somewhere in the middle of the room at a table where a woman was talking on her cell phone. I ate. I decided no coffee was probably a better choice than court house coffee and got none.

Back up to the jury room. Lunch seemed to have made everyone tired and sleepy rather than replenishing energy. Most people slept or sat quietly reading. I realized I don’t sit still. I move a lot. Tap my feet. Drum my hands. Stretch. I would occasionally get up and wander around and passing back through the room to the State Court holding area I took a second glance at a coat closet no one had paid any attention to. I glimpsed a board game on a shelf in the rear. What da’ you know. Backgammon, Dominoes and Scrabble. I got out the Scrabble game, wondered how many people ever noticed the games because they were in pretty decent shape. I returned to my spot and played Scrabble against myself.

It was about 3 o’clock. Superior Court emptied everyone out. Then State Court read out a long list of names and said if you were one of the 10 not on the list that you would be staying and definitely sent down for one of the jury selections. I was one of the last 10 and thought oh great a definite day two coming up. The seats around the Louisiana woman were now vacant, there only being ten of us left in a room that had held several hundred. I moved three paces from my seat on the floor to the row between the Louisiana woman and another woman reading a newspaper. We all exchanged a few sentences. They returned to their reading. I returned to looking around the room and staring at the ceiling and thinking about David Lynch and the scene in “Twin Peaks” when the camera zoomed in through the acoustic ceiling to the room where Leland Palmer was being questioned about Laura’s murder. As a woman passed in the hall outside I realized her footsteps were echoing and how quiet it now was. The Louisiana woman remarked on how quiet it was now. I said that I’d been thinking the same because of the woman’s echoing footsteps.

I don’t know where I got the idea the day would be more interesting than it had been. I was almost pleased not to have been sent home, to have to go through the questioning phase. I thought well they probably won’t release me from duty because of homeschooling and self-employment (I’m self-employed too but never mind). I thought they’ll probably send me home for some other reason, like my contempt for the justice system. I wondered if they would ask me something where I would show how undesirable a juror I’d be by mentioning prison as a growth industry in rural America and how we have a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other nation.

I thought maybe I should be a juror because of how I feel about the justice system, except Georgia only pays $25 a day, not even minimum wage, and Marty would have to take care of H.o.p. and that would mean cancelling studio sessions he was producing this week, which would mean not just him out of work those days and losing income but the musicians already booked to perform being out of work.

At 4 o’clock it was announced that we would not be needed. Our names were read out. My name was the last name called on the list. I thought well every day there is a last person to be called on the list and today I’m that person. I now went to the area marked “telephones”. I had not been back there and had envisioned lots of telephones. In cubicle after cubicle there were only telephone wires dangling from the wall, or forlorn jacks. There were only two phones. I wondered why.

The Georgia Constitution in 1999 was amended so that full-time post secondary school students could be exempted as well as anyone who is a primary caregiver to children under the age of four.

In the 2001 Georgia Courts in the 21st Century, The Report of the Supreme court of Georgia, Blue Ribbon commission on the Judiciary, one finds, along with the recommendation that employers be given tax incentives to pay jurors their salary, or at least not penalize employees who serve as jurors (ain’t that nice), “The drawbacks of placing responsibility on employers to avoid financial hardship to jurors, however, are that it does not address the problem of hardship faced by self-employed jurors, and that ultimately it is just another shifting of the cost for this public service to another private payer. One alternative solution to this problem might be the creation of a pool of resources on which trial judges could draw in case of significant financial hardship to individual jurors serving in their courts.”

There is nothing about reviewing hardship placed on those who homeschool.

In Connecticut you can request $50 in child-care reimbursement per day. In Minnesota you can request $50 if the care was from a licensed provider or up to $40 a day child-care from a non-licensed provider.

As already mentioned, in Georgia you are paid $25 a day for jury duty and there is no child-care reimbursement and no reimbursement for travel expenses (which some states have) and the Louisiana woman had talked about having to drive an hour and a half from North Fulton. Minimum wage it is not–and who can live on minimum wage? I read the normal length of a State Court trial is two and a half days. Add on the day of going through the selection proceess and you get three and a half days which is four days for $100.

Anyway, I did my duty. I guess I can sleep now.

Comments 5

  1. I get to do jury duty at the Fulton County State Court on March 15th and can’t wait to go rooting around in the coat closet to find games. I’m trying to figure out how I can bait someone into playing me a game of Scrabble, since I’m not great at Dominoes or Backgammon; two games I should probably start practicing. I’m thinking I’ll go straight to the closet and pull the game out, like it’s my own personal playroom where I’ve been a thousand times, and just announce my greatness at the game of Scrabble. No doubt people will be flocking to take down the self-appointed champion of the room.

    Anyway, it sounds like a painfully boring, terribly disorganized, but completely American cultural experience. Good times. Can’t wait to rake in just a bit more than a tenth of my daily income.

  2. Oh, I’m so pleased I’ve been of help! The experience was boring, yes but had the convivial “we’re all in this mess together” feel of a hurricane shelter at its best, with people nodding off on their neighbor’s shoulder. And as people began to be “released” the atmosphere became partyish, lots of congratulations and well wishes and the clerks became all smiles with people callling thanks to them, thank you, thank you, like a lottery.

  3. Well, a year later and its my turn. I’m afraid I won’t be able to find the correct parking lot. The web site says the “blue lot” and the phone message says the “orange lot” I don’t have the page I’m supposed to stick in my widshield so I don’t get towed. I am agoraphobic. I can’t go to the movie theater but I have to be hearded like cattle around the court house. If I were actually going to be on a jury I wouldn’t mind at all. Instead I just feel like I’m wasting my time. They are wasting my time. I feel like I’m going to jail for the day. I wascalled once before when I lived in Decatur, but the Dekalb Courthouse wassmall and I could wal;k there from my house. I live in Alpharetta now, I will have to drive 28 miles according to the directions and I will have to pay a toll each way. Gee, if I were the defendant I could get a chauffered ride there for free. I’m far more worried about getting there on time and handling the parking than worried about being there. You can’t get a human being on the phone…and what if the parking shuttle never shows up? Well, at least I can hope maybe someone will be willing to play Scrabble with me!

  4. You might want to bring your own Scrabble game to make sure you’ve got all the pieces.

    Good luck with the parking lots. I fortunately had someone to drop me off and pick up.

    Don’t know if this will help any but the atmosphere is very relaxed in the holding room the day I was there, a lot of people in the same situation, and the holding room is in two sections, one of them smaller and more intimate in feeling.

  5. Not much to say except that I love this story. I’m pretty much a night person who is having a hip replacement in two weeks so the idea of sitting in pain in daylight sounds like hell. I can’t believe I can’t take my iPod.

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