"I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."
-- Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine, 1789
Every year the fifty courts in Los Angeles County handle 2,700,000 new cases. This gives the system the ignominious distinction of being the largest court in the country. To fuel this formidable juggernaut of justice, Los Angeles calls 2.68 million residents every year for jury service – the equivalent of calling more than every woman, man and child in Denver or Miami. This provides the court with 10,000 potential jurors a day. Given the collective impact, it’s not unreasonable to consider the court system in terms of a unique culture and brand. And if the Los Angeles County court system is a brand, what are its essential attributes? As I learned during my drawn-out service as a potential juror recently: inefficient, sclerotic, dispiriting and dehumanizing.
“Juror Orientation” in large part consists of being repeatedly reminded that everyone would rather be almost anywhere else. As some small consolation to our own insignificance, my fellow jurors and I were informed that potential juror Brad Pitt had sat in this very room but a few months before. You may be interested to know that Mr. Pitt enjoyed a Subway sandwich for lunch during his tenure as a prospective juror. Now that’s product placement!
In California jury service consists of “one day or one trial.” If you make it through the day without being empanelled, you are free for the next 12 months before you can be called again. For a catalog of reasons too tedious to detail, I ended up being stuck in the process, never placed on a jury, but unable to end my service for five days.
Whether you are Brad Pitt making $90,000.00 an hour, a securities lawyer making $900 an hour, a fry chef making $9 an hour or somewhere in between, one thing is clear: we all place a higher value on our time than the court does. And the reason is that the court compels, rather than enlists participation. As the judge in my case put it, “there are two things you have to do in America: pay taxes and jury duty.”
In England, jury selection customarily consists of a single question: "Can you give a fair hearing to both the crown and the defence?" While an admittedly broad brush, you can’t beat it for arriving at the crux of the issue. But in the United States, this question is just the beginning. In fact. the judge in my case told us that if he felt potential jurors were giving evasive answers in an attempt to avoid jury service, he would excuse them from the panel and order them to observe the whole trial from the gallery. Whether he actually had the power to do this is beside the point; it reflects an attitude that the citizenry exists to serve the court, rather than the other way around.
This hubris undermines confidence in both the efficacy and the wisdom of the jury system. Where attendance is compulsory, little incentive exists to make it better. But the right to a trial by jury is too important to have it undermined by a court culture oblivious to its enormous collective societal impact. If the trial courts were run as a business, I bet they would run jury selection more like the UK model. Here’s a modest proposal. Instead of having the jurors wait for the litigants, have the litigants wait for the jurors! Imagine a court that began at the scheduled time. Imagine a system where instead of being confined and sluiced about like livestock, jurors were actually treated as if they were important.
In fairness, the system has improved somewhat. It used to be worse. A lot worse. At one time Los Angeles required potential jurors to show up each day for 30 days or until they were placed on a trial. The first time I was called for jury service in Los Angeles, I had to show up and wait in the courthouse for ten days straight. Cutting the time in half is at least a start.