My Tour of Jury Duty in Newark
I arrived 15 minutes ahead of my 8:15 appointed time and first went through the X-ray scanner. They just need to make sure no one is packing heat as they enter the Essex County Courthouse. Personally, I was more concerned by the guy in front of me eyeballing my iPhone than I was about getting shot.
I checked in and got my parking ticket stamped, because no one pays to park for jury duty, and then had a seat. I was surprised to see on the video screen that there was what in effect was a customer satisfaction survey you could fill out because it said they wanted to know how they could make jury service better (more on that later).
The real action didn’t start until 9. It started with a video about CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). It was a pretty effective video that had interviews with children who were abandoned by their parents and shuffled around in foster care until a CASA volunteer helped them get adopted into a stable home. Then a woman from Essex County CASA made a pitch and handed out pamphlets.
That was followed at about 9:20 by the juror orientation video. That one started with a judge telling us how fortunate we were to live in a society that has jury trials. The morale of that story was of course that we should see jury duty as a privilege and honor rather than an inconvenience. After that we got some jury trial 101 explaining what words like plaintiff, defendant and prosecutor meant. There was some slightly more advanced stuff like an explanation of the jury selection process. (Don’t take it personally if one of the attorneys doesn’t want you on the jury even though you didn’t say anything stupid that made you seem unacceptable.)
Then we got a live orientation by an energetic dude with a sense of humor. He set forth some of the more practical issues, such as, sit in Room A to watch HGTV, Room B to watch ESPN or Room C for CNN. Lunch was from 12 to 1:30. One thing you can always count on in the courthouse is a robust lunch ‘hour.’ He also noted that you shouldn’t ask for an advance on your five bucks to buy lunch. (The per diem rate for jurors in New Jersey is $5.) He also encouraged us to fill out the survey questionnaire and promised to read them all before he left work that night. That’s customer service you can’t get in the private sector.
We all then stood up, raised our right hand, and took an oath to uphold the Constitution. And by god, that is exactly what I intended to do, although I admit to being a little sketchy about the right to bear arms bit. Seems to me there were probably some trials going on in that very courthouse involving some folks who were in deep shit for bearing arms.
By then it was 10 a.m. and after all of that activity we sat down to take a break. By 10:30 they started calling names to go up to a courtroom. The second group was at 10:40, they called more at 10:55 and at 11. And then at 11:10, my name was called. Being on the list at this point was a mixed blessing. On the one hand you held out the hope that after calling three or four jury groups, they would say, well that’s it folks thanks for coming but we won’t be needing you. On the other hand I was thinking that the highlight of my day was going to be heading down into Newark where there were some excellent lunch options. And while 90 minutes seems a good amount of time for lunch for non-judicial workers, once you get up into a courtroom they don’t like to cut it that tight.
It took until 11:30 to get the 90 or 100 people who were called to this courtroom upstairs and in place. It was a criminal trial and the judge went over some of the details. Hours would be 8:30 to 5. He mentioned that in his 16 years on the bench no one ever stayed past 5. Good news for jurors but I’m sure a lot of people in the room were thinking “when’s the last time I got out of work at 5?”
Then he said the trial would last 7 days and described a schedule that would take it to Nov. 6. Bear in mind that it was Oct. 22. Try to do the math. Start with Oct. 22 and count out 7 days. Try it not counting weekends and Fridays. Try it not counting weekends, Fridays and Mondays. It still doesn’t stretch to Nov. 6. I suspect there probably aren’t any judges who follow my blog, but if you are a judge reading this can you explain to me why you guys can’t work at least a four-day week. Even a three-day week?
So since I had a trip planned and paid for in early November, when the judge asked anyone who couldn’t serve on this case or anyone who just didn’t want to serve on this case to stand, I got up, told him my name, and left along with at least half the other people in the room. Just in time for lunch and my trip down Market Street into downtown Newark.
In the back of my mind was the fact that the Cuban at Dinosaur Barbeque was perhaps the best sandwich I had ever had, but I decided instead to try Hobby’s deli, an old-school Jewish deli that somehow has managed to survive for decades in downtown Newark. I was richly rewarded with a cup of mushroom barley soup and a classic corned beef sandwich. Adding to the ambiance was a wall full of framed Devils jerseys and big “Henrique! It’s Over!” photo. (If you’re a Devils fan or a Rangers fan you know what “Henrique! It’s Over!” is.)
So then it was back to the jury assembly room, after taking a couple pictures for this blog post.
I would like to tell you what happened that afternoon, but in fact nothing happened. So I’ll interrupt this chronological narrative to talk about the Essex County Courthouse. I’ve also done jury duty in Paterson and Jersey City and I can tell you that the Newark courthouse is the Taj Mahal of North Jersey judicial buildings. It is a new, modern complex with a spacious garage, walkways between buildings so you don’t have to go outside in bad weather and lots of elevators that work. The jury assembly room has good wifi, state of the art audio visual gear, a computer lounge and a coffee lounge with free tea and coffee all morning. You don’t often hear about things being nicer in Newark but for jury duty that is in fact the case.
After a full afternoon of non-activity, at 3:25 they called a large group of names to the front desk. They were then given some good news and some bad news. They were dismissed for the day, but they needed to be back the next day at 9:30. Based on the grumbling as they left, the bad news seemed to override the good for this group. The people who run the jury room are pretty nice folks so they waited until this group cleared out so as not to hurt their feelings when they advised the rest of us that we were done. Done for the day, done for this term of service. We high-tailed it out of there with smiles on our faces, overlooking for the moment the thought of being fortunate to live in a society with jury trials.