Ellen W. Eager, an office manager, served as a juror twice at D.C. Superior Court in the late 1970s. She was so angered by the system's poor treatment of jurors she joined citizens groups working to improve the court system and later joined the Council for Court Excellence, a watchdog group. A House District subcommittee has approved a bill that would replace the current system of two weeks of jury duty with service for one trial or one day, a reform promoted by the council. The full committee is expected to vote on the measure soon. Such a system is now used in many jurisdictions, including Montgomery County. The District Weekly welcomes views on city life from Washington residents.
When you enter the D.C. Superior Court building and find yourself in the tall central lobby that leads everywhere, you see five floors of busy, hurrying, talking people. Then, in a corner of the third-floor hall, you see a large group of bored people leaning over the balcony staring bleakly at the activity. These are jurors. And they are waiting. Which is what they mostly do for two whole weeks.
I have served two terms of jury duty in the D.C. Superior Court, and I learned that our main occupation as jurors is waiting to be called for a trial. Anyone who has been there will tell you, in frustration and anger, of how much valuable personal time they wasted just sitting around. And how much money the city wastes paying jurors for days when they do little more than read, eat lunch and sleep.
One great benefit of the bill now before the House is that it eliminates the excuses and exemptions which have made it possible for many categories of city residents, such as lawyers, teachers, doctors, elected public officials, clergymen, firemen, nurses, to avoid jury duty altogether.
Under the new law, no one will be exempt. Every citizen will have to take a turn at jury duty. That is fair. It will produce juries more representative of the community. It will spread jury duty throughout the city's population. And it has long-range benefit for the court itself.
One Trial/One Day jury service means that a person called for jury duty goes to the court on one scheduled day. If chosen for a trial he serves until the end of that trial, which on average runs about two days. If not chosen to sit on a trial, at the end of the day his jury service ends.
Serving on a trial is, for most jurors, an exciting and worthwhile experience. I certainly found it so. The trial itself is involving, showing a side of life that most of us thankfully never see. When testimony ends and the jury retires to the jury room, you find yourself at a table with 11 other people of different types, ages and experiences. You're a little shy at first. You don't know these people and everyone has followed the judge's orders not to discuss the trial.
But then one person after another begins discussing the testimony. Pretty soon you are involved in a sincere and conscientious search for the facts of the case. There is nothing casual about it. Most people have a high sense of the duty they have been given, of the responsibility to share their memories of the testimony, to sort out the inconsistencies in testimony, to decide what the facts are in the case, and finally to agree on the verdict. It is amazing what 12 individuals can accomplish together and, yes, sometimes it is downright inspiring.
But all that good stuff only happens when you actually get on a trial. And as a juror you don't spend much time doing that. The first time I served as a Superior Court juror was in 1976. Jury duty lasted for one full month. Never mind the work undone at the office, never mind not being home with the children, I had to be at the courthouse. In that month I got to serve on three trials, which I think took all of six days. I was lucky. Some people were never picked for juries.
The second time I served, the length of Superior Court jury duty had been reduced to two weeks. This time I kept notes on my experience because, frustrated by the delays and other problems seen during my first jury service, I had joined a citizens' group which wanted to improve the court system -- and which had actively pushed for the reduction to two weeks of service.
This time I noted that I was usually called only once a day to go to a courtroom to be considered to to serve on a jury. The rest of the time I sat in the jury lounge (waiting room to civilians), usually with more than 100 other people, idle and bored.
One woman told me that in her entire two weeks of service she was called out only once, in the afternoon of her final day. Another woman juror lived in a courthouse phone booth trying to keep her business running. The standard jury lounge greeting is, "Have you been called today?"
I have been part of as many as 200 unused jurors crowding the lounge for a long afternoon without once being called for a trial. We thought of how we could better spend this time at our homes or at our jobs.
And since we were also taxpayers we spent a good deal of time resentfully calculating how much the city government was paying us for doing nothing. Each juror receives $30 a day whether they are hearing a trial or waiting in the jury lounge.
One must also wonder what is the point in calling certain people to serve, such as victims of crime. This excludes some of them automatically after judges hear of their experiences in private conferences at the bench. Others are usually dismissed by one of the opposing attorneys.
One trial/one day jury service in itself will not eliminate waiting, but it will mean that a potential juror has to spend only one day waiting. It should also mean that the Superior Court will be able to monitor its daily trial calendar more closely, so that only enough people needed for the trials expected that day will be called.
A one trial/one day system of jury service should make jury duty less burdensome, more equitable, and efficient. It could help turn an obligation of citizenship into an instructive, rewarding act of service to the community at large.