I consider myself a pretty good citizen, reasonably community minded, generally willing to do my fair share. I don’t go out of my way to be involved but I don’t go out of my way not to be involved either. So it was that when I received a summons for jury duty last month, I completed the form as directed and expressed my joy at the prospect of being able to drive to Sacramento and participate as a prospective juror in the Ninth District Federal Court. I was happy to be a “fish” in the jury pool so to speak.
Being on a jury is really interesting. Some of it is even fun in a quirky kind of way. I’ve been on four juries here in the county in the past 25 years or so. The farthest I had to travel for jury duty was to the Cameron Park Superior Court building, about 10 miles from home. Not bad at all. From my house to the Robert Matsui Federal Courthouse at 5th and I Streets in downtown Sacramento is almost 50 miles. Bad. Having to be in the building at 8 a.m. Really bad.
My first thought upon reading the summons was that they must have made a mistake. They wouldn’t be calling me all the way down there for jury duty, would they? Didn’t make sense. After reading the small print, however, I saw that I was probably in the mid-range of distance from the court. The district includes citizens as far as Redding and Shasta County and even up to the Oregon border, San Joaquin County, Solano County, Alpine, Nevada and Amador counties as well as Sacramento and Yolo. That’s more like a jury ocean than a jury pool. So I rightly assumed I would not be excused due to living too far away. If you live more than 80 miles from the courthouse, they’ll give you a hotel voucher for $160 and probably a meal expense, though I didn’t notice that on the informational packet.
Unlike the local jury obligation where you’re eligible for a year or two, this federal requirement is to be “on call” for the month. I’m still on call until next Thursday. Throughout October, I’ve been obliged to call the 1-800 jury scheduling phone number after 5 p.m. The first time it was a Monday, and after that it’s been Fridays after 5. Until last Friday, I kept getting the message that I was not scheduled for the following week but must call the number again on Friday. Last Friday, someone from the court administration actually called my house at about 4 p.m. to tell me I was scheduled to appear Monday Oct. 21 at 8 a.m. The person also said I still had to call the 1-800 number after 5 p.m. that same day, which seemed a bit overdone, but I complied and sure enough the recorded message confirmed what the caller had told me an hour earlier.
I commuted from Diamond Springs to Davis for five years when I was a school teacher back in the 1970s. I got used to it. Since then my longest work commute has been about five miles. I’m really used to that. Just thinking about getting up before the crows and driving to downtown Sacramento before the sun is fairly up sucks — actually doing it really sucks. So Monday morning, I got up at 5:15 a.m., pulled out of the driveway a couple of minutes after 6. After extensive research I knew it was about 48 miles to the downtown area depending on which route I took. I usually go to the first I-80 interchange then go downtown via G or H Streets. I always forget which one goes all the way to the Old Sacramento area. 5th at I Street is very near that part of town. Traffic was steady but really not bad, not crazy-crowded as I had expected. That being the case, I actually got into the Downtown Plaza parking garage a little after 7 a.m., double checked my directions and address and left for the courthouse, figuring I’d find a cup of coffee somewhere nearby. I was headed for 501 I Street which turned out to be right across the street from where I emerged out of the parking garage.
I went up and tried the four glass doors which were all locked and nobody was in sight. I’d have thought someone would be in the building by 7:15, but I didn’t see anyone and no one else was out front. I sat against a planter box and read my book for about 20 minutes. At 7:50, I thought it was kind of odd that I was still the only person outside the building, so I got up and strolled down the block thinking there was another entrance. At that point I saw several guys walking opposite of me who had the same court document in their shirt pocket that I was carrying. Halfway down the block, I looked ahead and noticed a huge building with a sign out front, Robert Matsui Federal Courthouse. I’d been sitting in front of 501 J Street instead of 501 I Street, and I wasn’t far from being late. Contempt of court and I’m not even there yet, I thought.
Inside was the obligatory metal detector and several no-nonsense Federal Court Security officers. Like at the airport, I took off my belt, put my pen and stuff in the little plastic bowl, walked through the scanner thing and heard that dreaded “beep.” One no-nonsense guy ordered me back to take off my shoes. At the end of the line again. This time I took the several coins out of my pocket and put my shoes on the conveyor belt. No beeps and then the guy very politely offered me a seat to comfortably put my shoes back on. I wasn’t late yet. Up to the 4th floor Jury Assembly area, check in with the clerk, get my parking ticket validated, get coffee in the Juror Lounge, find a seat and wait. And wait. And wait some more. At a little after 9 a.m. the nice Jury Administrative lady invited us to watch a 10-minute video on the great honor of the duty we were about to perform. The film featured Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. They were very convincing.
Then the nice Jury lady called names and handed out yellow slips of paper numbered 1-25. I didn’t get a yellow. After a while she announced that the rest of us, 72 in all, would be given white slips of paper with a number. I became jury pool person number 30. Then we sat around a little longer until she told us to line up in order, take the special elevator to the 15th floor and line up, in order, at Courtroom 3. We did that. And there we stood for another 20 or 30 minutes waiting for person number 17 and person number 43 and for some reason 38 through 42 had to line up special at the end of another line.
Another nice Jury/Court lady then lined us up in rows of eight or nine on each side of the Courtroom door where we waited some more while she kept checking in and telling us it would only be a few more minutes. At last my row followed three other rows into the courtroom and we were seated either in the jury box, or in my case, in one of three rows of movable chairs in front of the jury box. Everyone else sat in the audience area.
The judge, another really nice lady, bid us welcome and again told us how important it was that we’d showed up. We were to be the backbone of the American system of justice, in a word. She seemed very sincere. The judge had a list of about a dozen questions, which if answered in the affirmative with a raised hand, led to a series of related questions to each individual who had raised a hand.
“Have you or anyone you’re related to or anyone you know ever been charged with a crime? Have you/or a relative or anyone you know ever worked in law enforcement? Have you/or a relative or anyone you know ever been the victim of a crime? Have you (etc.) or anyone you know ever been the victim of a particular kind of crime (one that related to the trial at hand)? Have you or anyone you know ever worked in sales (especially the kind that might relate to the trial at hand)? Do you or anyone you know feel a strong bias for or against people in law enforcement? Do you feel that you have a racial bias that would prevent you from being a fair juror? Do you believe that because the defendants (three young men) are being prosecuted by the U.S. Government that you would automatically be disposed to think they are guilty? Do you have any health condition that could impair your ability to be a fair juror? Is there any reason that you could not participate in this trial that is expected to last from four to six weeks?”
“Ouch. Yeah, how about the fact that this would really be a drag having to get up at Dark Thirty four days a week for six weeks and drive from Placerville to here and then home again at the end of the day?” But I didn’t say that, nor did anyone else. I only raised my hand once but could have raised it more. I just didn’t think it was necessary.
I don’t know how many people raised their hands to one or more or all of the judge’s questions but it was a lot. A couple of people must have seen this as their very own 15 minutes of fame and took serious advantage of it. Each of the 40 of us in the box or chairs then had to answer a set of 11 questions and explain to the judge if she asked for more information about a particular answer. That was 11 questions times 40 people plus all the asides and digressions and “I don’t remembers but I think it was back in Alabama or maybe in Ohio right after my sister had her baby.” (If you think I’m kidding, you would be about 90 percent wrong.)
“What is your current or former occupation? What is your spouse’s and children’s occupations (if applicable). I mentioned that one of my sons does research at UC Berkeley, and the judge wanted to know what kind of research. She was that thorough (11 times 40). She also assured us, sincerely, that we should have a jury picked by 4 p.m. and that everyone would go home after that. Just for the record, at 6 p.m., we were all dismissed. As I mentioned I’m still “on call,” therefore it can be determined that I was not selected; thank all the lucky stars in the heavens and may that luck continue through next week.
Other than the 20 or so people who were dismissed for any number of good reasons — (“for cause” as they say) illness, pre-paid vacations, impossible work schedules, sole-provider and no pay for up to six weeks — we were not told why we were not selected. The final selection was done behind closed doors while we waited in the hall another 40 minutes or more.
I have to call the 1-800 Jury number again tonight after 5 p.m. to find out my fate for next week. If you have any good luck charms or amulets or rituals, I’d really appreciate it if you’d mention me to them. Thanks.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.