Sunday, February 15th, 2009...13:02

Jury Duty

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Last Tuesday I reported for jury duty at the Superior Court of California, County of Alameda’s Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse. The last time I actually had to go to report for jury duty was in May of 2006. It was for a civil case relating to this: Esteemed UC history professor hit by truck and killed on campus. Unfortunately, I had plans to travel for a friend’s wedding, plus having attended UC Berkeley, probably would not have been picked for the jury anyway. Prior to that I had never even been asked to report to a courthouse.

My desire to be on a jury perplexes most people as they tend to try and avoid it at nearly any cost. The government plays such a large part of a citizen’s life and there are so many ways to participate in it; yet only a small percentage of people do, in many cases only when they’re forced. Being asked to participate in a jury seems like one of the most exciting governmental activities an average citizen can easily participate in and feel like they’re actually making a difference (voting doesn’t really count since even in a local election [unless your in the boonies] you’re just one out of several thousand).

When I arrived at the courthouse shortly before 9am, I had to go through airport style security, waiting in a line out the door and around the block. A few people cut to the head of the line, inciting one person to loudly request security come out and do something. The line cutters lobbed a few profanities at this person and of course, no security guards ever materialized. Once inside the courthouse I proceeded to the juror assembly room and began taking stock of the people in attendance. Ethnically, Oakland is quite diverse but looking around the room it didn’t seem like 1 in 3 people were Black. I’d say only 15% of the people in the room (probably around 150) were Black, while 45% were White, 25% were Asian, and 15% were Hispanic or Latino. I think most people fit in the 35-54 demographic and only a handful of people appeared to be under 30. Gender was probably 50/50.

I had brought several issues of the New Yorker with me and at one point noticed there was a woman in the row in front of me who was reading the previous page of the same issue I was (2 weeks old), what are the odds of that? We watched a short video of former jurors speaking positively about jury duty and the two employees of the court system kept apologizing for the delay, since normally the selection process begins by 10am but it was nearly 11am and still no word from the judge. Around 11:20am a judge came in, apologized again, told us he appreciated our service and dismissed all of us as the case in question had been settled. Guess I’ll have to wait until next time.

The silver lining is that I learned how one gets selected for jury duty. The law states a citizen is supposed to be summoned for jury duty at most once per year. Citizens are chosen from the people who have drivers licenses and/or are registered to vote. It turns out the system is so unsophisticated, that if you fall into both those pools and your name differs by one letter i.e. you put your middle initial on your drivers license, but not your voter registration, then you’ll be considered two different people and might be summoned more than once per year. I wonder how many people make sure their name is slightly different in order to increase the chance they’ll be summoned…

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