Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct "voir dire" — an outdated Latin phrase meaning "to speak the truth" — which is the process in which we select jurors for a possible trial.
(Why we are all still forced to use the phrase "voir dire" instead of "juror questioning" is perhaps a topic for another day.)
But on Friday, for the first time in my professional career, the tables were turned: The interrogator becomes the potential subject.
I was called for jury duty in state court.
Before I relay some observations, I’ll answer two obvious questions. First, I wasn’t selected for a jury. On the one case that I was called for, I knew attorneys at both firms and had a major scheduling conflict.
And second, I did not get any special favors as an attorney. Indeed, i was in the last batch of individuals sent home for the day — long after I had any hope of getting out early.
Lawyers in Connecticut have to serve our day just like everyone else. Attorneys are not likely to be picked to serve on a jury, but nevertheless, we have a same public service obligations as the rest of the public.
So, what did I observe during my day?
- The potential jurors were a varied group. One was reading Sarah Palin’s "Going Rogue" while another was busy studying for some classes she was taking. It was a mix of ages, genders and races. A quiet group to begin, but by mid-morning, many of us were chatting with these new strangers, all commiserating with our lot for the day.
- On a Friday, moods start to shift from a grudging willingness to take part in the morning, to near hostility to the process by mid-afternoon. As an attorney, it’s a good reminder that you can’t beat the clock or the calendar. Keeping potential jurors late in the day is a sure way to make enemies.
- The holding room in Hartford Superior Court could use some free wifi like Starbucks, or at least some magazines more current than an Reader’s Digest from July 2005. (Was that a good issue?) If you are called, bring plenty of reading material; don’t expect to be entertained at the court. And don’t expect to watch the news there; it’s frowned upon, lest there be a discussion on a case.
- The orientation process was pretty good — though a bit too long. (Is it really necessary to advise people where the recycling bins are?) As a lawyer, it’s best to remember that when prospective jurors are being examined, they have just gotten information about things like the burden of proof and to build off that information when conducting voir dire.
- First impressions still matter. When prospective jurors walk into a courtroom for the first time, they’re a bit disoriented and taking in the surroundings. How attorneys and parties act in front of them will make an impact one way or the other.
Overall, while I can’t say that I’m looking forward to being called again, I can say that the experience in Hartford is a decent one and that there’s valuable lessons for employers and their attorneys to learn from experiencing it for yourself.
It only reinforces something I’ve long preached to clients: A trial in front of a jury of your peers will mean your fate is being decided truly by a varied group of strangers. If a settlement is within range, is a jury trial a risk worth taking?
Here are a few other tidbits if you’re called to jury duty in Hartford.
- You can get called for a civil case OR a criminal case, even though the holding room is in the criminal building.
- Lunch offerings are limited; the food truck outside is a decent option, but you can walk down to Broad Street for the Cafe at Billings Forge or even Firebox. You can always pack a lunch and store it in the refrigerator.
- You are given a prospective juror sticker when you arrive. Oddly, they also collect them at the end of the day; there must be some logic to this but the extent of effort to recover these small circles seems a bit out of proportion.
- You can and should check whether your attendance is required the night before. On the sheet, it just provides a telephone option BUT you can also check it online here. Do the online option — it’s much quicker than listening to dozens of names being read over the phone.
Lastly, no matter how bad you think jury duty can be, remember that your day could get worse.
You could wind up like me and have a flat tire when you come out. True story.
(Pictures courtesy of State of CT and Morguefile.)