How is it that two days of jury duty can feel like two months in purgatory? Can sitting in a room with nothing to do but read a good book, away from the demands of one’s job, the ringing of phones, the beeping of incoming emails… really be so horrifyingly, mind-scrapingly agonizing?
I’m here to say, it can be. All you have to do is tell a person they’ve got to replace their already meager salary with a ridiculous $40/day stipend, tell them they can’t connect to the internet to check in with work, can’t use their mobile phone to talk with their loved ones, threaten them with the possibility of 18 months in Grand Jury hell, and then leave them stewing for EIGHT HOURS at a stretch in a room full of strangers, with nowhere to stretch out, no way to heat up their own brown-bag lunch, and no information forthcoming about further service until the very end of the day. Oh, and travel costs are to be reimbursed at a rate of .55 cents a mile. Whose mass transit costs fifty-five cents? Or even twice that?
In today’s uncertain economy, the already stressful and tedious obligation to serve as an essential part of the American judicial system can become overwhelmingly anxiety-producing – at least for those of us whose jobs don’t pay us for days lost. Yet we can’t do without jurors, or our whole legal system would collapse. And the government’s highly unlikely to start paying jurors a wage comparable to their current salaries. So what’s to be done?
Well, for me, I try to game the system – as ethically as I can.
Now, the internet is full of advice on how to get out of jury duty, but I must tell you, some of what I read goes beyond poor sportsmanship (and citizenship), and really treads into “I’m a total stinker if I do any of this” territory. What I’m suggesting may be a tad controversial for an ethics blogger, but it’s nothing like that.
Here’s my take: I treat jury duty like a long airport delay. You know, the kind where you’ve been stranded along with ten thousand other passengers due to bad weather or a computer glitch or whatever. There’s nothing you can do at a time like that, except silently suffer and wait it out, right? You’re all in the same boat.
Wrong – or at least that’s not my experience. In my experience, those who ask (nicely, respectfully, but frequently) get what they need fastest, while those who remain with the herd don’t get any sort of preferential treatment. Do I deserve preferential treatment? Well no, not more than anybody else, but not less than anybody else either. So why not ask? As my mom says, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. So I usually make myself known to the gate agent, tell them my needs, ask them for their utmost assistance, bat my metaphorical eyelashes, and hope for the best. And yes, in support of my cause, I usually roll out whatever sob story I’ve got to tell, so long as it’s reasonably true, and I acknowledge that others may have equal or even greater needs. I appeal to the agent’s good nature, and I stress “I’m just asking for whatever you can do.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it sure works a lot better than not trying.
I believe there’s nothing unethical about looking out for yourself, so long as you don’t harm others.
So when it comes time to do my civic duty and serve jury duty, I do a couple of things. First, I generally tend to postpone my service the maximum amount of times allowed. This gives me 6 months or a year more before I have to serve, and then once I do, I won’t have to do it for another 2 to 4, so I’ve maximized my unavailable time. I don’t feel bad about this, because it is within the law.
Second, when I do go to serve, I try to introduce myself in some fashion (not too ingratiatingly) to the clerks. I find that if they’re aware of your situation and your needs, they are usually willing to do what they can to minimize your inconvenience. I’m always sure to make it clear that I don’t consider myself a special case, but I certainly tell them what sort of hardship lengthy service will cause me (like lost wages). Whatever personal charm I have, I employ, to greater or lesser effect depending upon my target’s receptiveness.
Third, if I’m called for voir dire on a case, which usually happens, when I’m questioned by the judge to assess my suitability for the case, I bring up whatever I can reasonably claim might prove a problem for me. I never lie or fudge the truth, but I do make a big deal out of whatever qualms I do have.
There, I sometimes do feel a bit sheepish. Yesterday I looked a judge straight in the eye and told him I was worried about serving on a long case because it might a) make it hard to pay my rent this month, and b) mean I would have to miss taking my mother to her chemotherapy appointments.
Yes, I played the “my mom has cancer” card. And the “Your Honor, I might get tossed out into the street if I sit on this jury” card.
These were both true. Still, I didn’t think they’d make me unable to be fair and impartial, just that I’d be preoccupied with worry and that would make it harder for me to focus on the facts of the case. I left it up to the judge to decide whether this would be a deciding factor in letting me go, and he decided it wasn’t – I had to stay. However, the lawyers on the case did decide to dismiss me from the panel, and I doubt that would have happened had I not made my concerns known. If I had not come to their attention at all, they would not have had a reason to dismiss me.
And at the end of that second day, I went back to the downstairs clerk, and asked if there was anything she could do to mark my service as complete. She could. Now, whether this was special treatment or not, I can’t say. I know she did nothing illegal nor immoral. She simply exercised her prerogative just as I did mine.
So, I prove myself to be a reluctant citizen when it comes to my civic duty. I do what I must, but I don’t leap to volunteer. And I try to wriggle out as soon as I may. Is that poor ethics? Perhaps. So sue me. I’m sure the jury will be full of people just like myself.