Giuliani Has His Day in Court, as a Juror
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 1999; Page C2
NEW YORK, Aug. 31óJuror No. 1 was the only one in the box wearing a suit and tie. The only one who had a history of locking up mobsters, errant Wall Street tycoons and other malefactors. The only one who, in pretrial questioning about where he lived, replied, "Gracie Mansion."
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spent much of today in State Supreme Court, where he and five lesser-known men and women will, in a few days, render a verdict in a $7 million personal-injury case.
His selection as a juror on Monday startled the attorneys, the mortified plaintiff and Giuliani himself; it's believed to be the first time a New York City mayor has served.
Nevertheless, the justice system soldiered on, as did City Hall. "He's been saying, 'This is one of the trade-offs of living in a democracy,' " said his press secretary, Sunny Mindel.
Johnson v. Riverton Associates, a civil suit that would ordinarily have produced a virtually empty courtroom, was brought by a 45-year-old nightclub security guard named Oliver Johnson and his wife, Larene, against their landlords, a partnership that owns an apartment complex in Harlem. It is, a court spokesman could not resist saying, "a very personal personal-injury case": Johnson alleges that his penis was so severely scalded and scarred during a too-hot shower in 1995 that he remains unable to perform sexually. He's asking for $6 million in damages, and his wife, $1 million, for the loss of his . . . companionship.
Juror No. 1 is "fascinated by it," his spokeswoman said (as a juror, Giuliani himself can say nothing about the case); now, so is the rest of the city. The attorney for Riverton Associates denies any negligence or responsibility for the incident.
The attorneys for either party could have bounced Hizzoner from the panel during Monday's voir dire proceedings. Why didn't they? Perhaps Brian Hurley, the Johnsons' attorney, thought the mayor--facing an expected Senate campaign against first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton--would take this opportunity to publicly side with the Little Guy against landlords. Maybe James C. Miller, who is representing Riverton Associates, was remembering the mayor's past fulminations against "nuisance" lawsuits. It's anyone's guess; neither is saying.
All Giuliani was asked was whether he might be forced to interrupt his jury service (only in the case of natural disasters, injuries to police or firefighters, or other urban calamities, was his approximate answer) and whether he could set aside his areas of expertise (he was a bulldog U.S. attorney, not to mention his pugnacious tenure as a particularly outspoken mayor) and keep an open mind. He said he could.
Now he sits in the jury box--front row, all the way on the left--with his chin cupped in his hand, listening. One could not call him a serene presence, exactly: He shifts in his seat, crosses and uncrosses his arms, removes his glasses and puts them on again, traces his upper lip with a finger. He is, however, attentive. An unusual number of large men with earpieces can be seen hovering about in and outside the courtroom.
Meanwhile, before court convenes and after it adjourns, Giuliani still holds news conferences and will attend tonight's town hall meeting at P.S. 7 in East New York. He dashes back to City Hall during the noon recess for lunch with his staff.
Whatever the outcome, the winner in this proceeding is New York's state court system, handed a high-visibility example of its reform efforts. Chief Judge Judith Kaye abolished all exemptions from jury duty in 1995--no more excuses for police, doctors, lawyers or the mayor. A raft of celebrities have been showing up in jury assembly rooms of late--Marisa Tomei, Harvey Keitel, Dan Rather. In fact, Kaye herself was called for jury duty (but not selected) last week. "There is now nobody in New York State who is exempt or disqualified from serving on a jury," said Office of Court Administration spokesman David Bookstaver.
And once VIPs do show up ("Everyone was amazed--'It's really him,' " said prospective juror Cheryl Bloom, seated next to Giuliani in the jury assembly room, Bookstaver added, "They get no preferential treatment. They don't get ushered in and out. They're there; they're part of the system."
The loser, even if he should walk away with millions, is plaintiff Johnson. A soft-spoken man patting his face with a handkerchief, he testified several times today that he was extremely embarrassed by his injury, which he described in painful detail. Initially, he even hesitated to tell his wife about it. Now, as his attorney said during the trial, "Unfortunately, it's sort of on display to the world."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company