Jury Duty June 4, 2012

Civic Duty

by James Stefanile, ABR, GRI, SRES, QSC, REALTOR/Salesperson, Prudential NJ Properties, Montclair, NJ

MAY 28, 2012, Memorial Day:  As the holiday weekend winds down (3 days, no appointments!!! but I managed to rent an apartment, anyway!!!), I am trying to stuff as much of my weekly workload into Tuesday, May 29th as I can.  Starting Wednesday morning, I am called for jury duty as a petit juror in Newark.

When I received the notice some weeks ago, I contemplated trying to be excused.  When I was a contractor in TV I was excused a number of times because of “economic hardship”.  As a matter of fact, I’ve only reported  to jury duty once in my life.  I suppose there’s something to be said for trying a hardship excuse since, as a REALTOR, I’m an independent contractor.  But, I decided not to try to wriggle out of it yet again.  Chances are, I’d only get a postponement and I’d rather be done with it.  Besides, it could be interesting and diverting.  I have no illusions about serving the community or the greater good or any of that stuff.  I’m doing this because I have to and, if I’m looking forward to it, it’s because I view it as a vacation from the crime and punishment I experience every day (only kidding – or not).

So I’m looking forward to driving to Newark at the crack of dawn (ugh!) and being shuffled into a large room with my fellow citizens, who may not want to be there either.  I’ll bring plenty of work in case I don’t get called for a case, as was my last (and only) experience.  I have a small feeling of dread at the prospect of actually landing on a jury because of the time it will consume.  I take comfort in the fact that I don’t think any self-respecting defense attorney or prosecutor will pick me during voir dire.  I’m too well read, well-informed and too opinionated to survive that process.  We’ll see if that’s correct.  Who knows?  They may actually want someone on a jury who’s knuckles don’t drag on the sidewalk.

I’ll continue this post tomorrow night when I have to call to find out if I actually have to report…

Tuesday Evening, May 29th:   I called the juror “call-off” number and jurors with numbers almost up to mine were excused – not me.  Off to bed early since I have to rise with the birdies tomorrow…

Wednesday, May 30th:  As with most things that I do or buy rarely, I am always amazed at how much progress has been made since the last time.  I only buy cars every 10 years or so and I’m astounded at the features of my new cars compared  to the clunker I bought a decade ago.  The same can be said for the Superior Court facilities in Newark,

A new courthouse.

New buildings, new jury waiting areas, free coffee, a computer lounge with wi-fi and 3 television rooms. Quite a bit of progress from the dingy digs I recall from whenever it was I was last called. The morning begins with a video – what else?- in the jury assembly room, explaining our rights and privileges under the jury system.  I don’t readily admit to my investment in these concepts but, of course, I believe in all this.  What’s the alternative?  Next, a presentation by a live person going over the logistical nuts and bolts of jury service.  This young man was a very enthusiastic and accomplished speaker with great crowd presence and went out of his way to show respect and keep the mood upbeat and lively.  I must say, I was struck by how not-glum my fellow jurors were, in general.  Most people seemed in good spirits and ready to have a laugh with this speaker.

After this session we are allowed to wander off to the various areas, depending on what we want to do while we wait.

Free coffee!

I sat in one of the quiet lounges and listened while 2 sets of jurors were called.  My name not called.  I was beginning to entertain thoughts of sitting around for a while and then going home when my name was called with the third group.  I went with this group to a court room in the new building where a criminal case was being tried.  I won’t give any names or details, of course, since this is an ongoing matter.  The judge was a very strong speaker with lots of presence and passion and he explained the case and the process of jury selection and led us through a series of questions.  Ultimately, I was excused and back into the jury pool I went until lunch…

After lunch – in a much improved cafeteria from my last visit – I’m settling into the computer lounge to continue this post.  We’ll see where I end up this afternoon…

A computer lounge with wi-fi!

It didn’t take long before my name was called again.  This time we were escorted to the “Historic Courts Building”, a Victorian gem accessible through a tunnel below the Hall of Records, a slightly dingy, utilitarian building between the new courthouse and the historic.  The Hall of Records also hosts some courtrooms and, notably, the tenant/landlord courtrooms.  So, this is where all that Fair Housing law and tenant landlord disputes I hear so much about wind up!

Now, THIS is a courthouse!

The historic building was worth the trip.  Marble staircases, barrel-vault ceilings, frescos everywhere, stained glass skylights.  If the intention was to make the law seem bigger than the people practicing it in this building, it succeeds in overkill.  If you remember the movie The Verdict with Paul Newman, the court scenes could have been shot in this building.  Hint – if you’re looking for the bathroom in this building the best way to find one is to get picked for a jury – there’s one in the jury room.  Otherwise, it seemed to me, you are out of luck.

Grandeur, grandeur!

The building is logically organized with courtrooms on every floor and chambers, offices and jury rooms in wings off the courts.  I forgot to be annoyed to be there as I gawked at the grandeur of this building.  I had plenty of time to do so since deadlines seem to have no meaning here, but more about that later.  After waiting in this grand environment for a while, we were escorted into an equally imposing courtroom.  Marble everything (even the radiator covers!), frescoes on the wall and the entire high ceiling was a stained glass skylight.  The judge’s station was a big, carved, wooden beauty with a bronze statue of Justice standing on it like the cherry on a sundae and the highest thing in the room.  I was feeling smaller by the minute in this environment.

This was a civil case (again, no details) and the judge explained that the trial would probably last 3 days.  Remember, today is Wednesday, so that means, worst case, I’m out of here Friday.  I can probably live with that.  It’s a good thing I’m feeling that way since, wonder of wonders, I get picked for the jury.  I must say the judge, like everyone else so far, is bending over backwards to show respect and gratitude for our service.  I’m very struck by this since it’s unnecessary.  They’ve got us.  Our presence is mandated by law and they don’t have to be nice to us.  High marks to a system that is gracious nonetheless.

Remember what I said about me being too smart to be picked?  Well, forget it.  I was, obviously, very mistaken.  Even after the side-bar where the judge quizzed me about my profession, etc., and even though I was careful to use only big words in the presence of the lawyers, they still had no objection to me being on the jury.  I didn’t know whether to be flattered or not.  But, it’s a relief to be finally picked.  No more uncertainty back in the juror pool.  I know where I’m going and how long I’m going to be there.

Thursday, May 31st:  The bulk of the trial occurred today after some more delays and more waiting around.  If there’s any grumbling going on it’s a reaction to the elastic nature of the proceedings with regard to time.  You’ve heard that “the wheels of justice grind slowly”, well it appears to be true.  Things don’t start, it seems, until everything is settled and everyone is agreeable to begin.  The judge, from time to time, has to instruct the attorneys to “move it along!”  I wish we had those kind of instructions in real estate.  My fellow jurors are a lively bunch (8 total, 6 jurors and 2 alternates) and there’s much hilarity when we’re together outside the courtroom.  Gee, it’s a little like being back at the office listening to what seems, sometimes, like incessant laughter and me wondering what’s so funny.  I’ll only describe the jurors by saying they come from a good cross-section of society in terms of profession, race, economic status and intellect.  I quite like them and I think the feeling is mutual.  We are an attentive bunch as well and well-mannered in the courtroom.  We listened to testimony and watched the legal wheels turn with the push and pull between witness and lawyer, lawyer and judge, lawyer and lawyer.

Friday, June 1st:  The only thing left today is closing statements and instructions by the judge.  His Honor is congratulating himself on being accurate in his estimate to us of the length of the trial and I’m giving him a mental high-five as well for keeping this show moving.  We hit the jury room about 40 minutes from the start of the day.  I’m not picked as one of the alternates, so I’m deliberating with the rest and, thank goodness, I’m not picked as the Foreman.

The jury deliberation was the most interesting part and the part that reminded me of what I see everyday in real estate.  Without going into detail, suffice it to say that everyone took this seriously and everyone had a strong opinion.   The rules of the Court and the system wait outside the jury room door as 6 ordinary individuals try to forge consensus and agree.  Yeah, I go through this all the time and it isn’t always as pleasant as this was, ultimately.  I could tell we all felt a sense of responsibility and had a desire to be fair.  Qualities that I, many times, feel are woefully lacking in real estate transactions.  I had my doubts about some of the conclusions that were reached and I even had the minority opinion on some of the results and cast some dissenting votes which didn’t matter.  I was, however, satisfied with the result of the deliberations and was back in my office before lunch, just like I was back at the office working at the end of each preceding day.

I end each real estate transaction by looking back and rating my behavior, knowledge and judgment and those of the other participants.  I’m doing the same thing here and it occurs to me that this was much more important.  The result, or verdict, or whatever you call it, was terribly important to someone (as are the results of real estate transactions).  Looking back on this experience I realize that it was far more transparent than any real estate experience.  The law, the system and the tight mutual scrutiny that the small jury room encourages make the results much more genuine.  I just hope we did the right thing.