So, you’ve been summoned for jury duty by the King County Superior Court. You’ve received a rather unofficial-looking tri-folded piece of paper in the mail with a detachable badge and bus pass, and right now you’re either brainstorming ways to get out of it or you’re like me: pretty excited.
Jury duty gets a pretty bad rap but I found it to be extremely interesting, once I figured out exactly what was going on. Over the last few weeks of experiencing the process of selection and then actually serving on a jury, I developed some pretty strong opinions on why I think it’s important to complete your civic duty. I’ll get to all that later – but first, I’d like to explain exactly what happens when you receive your summons and you report to court.
Why Was I Picked?
Apparently your selection is based on both your driving record and your voting record, which is kind of heartening because at least you know that you’re in the company of generally good citizens. In fact, in looking around the room, I was surprised by just how normal everyone seemed to be. I had it in my mind that the room would be teeming with crazies who were going to extreme ends to get of service, kind of like Liz Lemon does in 30 Rock. (For the record, you don’t get questioned up on the stand like in this clip.)
Luckily, there is a pretty decent Wifi signal, vending machines, (including a Rubi) and dozens of waiting-room-esque seats that are not very comfortable for sitting with a laptop on your lap for long periods of time, but work quite well if you’re just sitting and reading.
Two-Day Time Commitment
The number one most important thing I learned was that jury duty is – at the very least- a two-day commitment. This isn’t written on the piece of paper that they send you or anywhere on the website. I think there is some vague language on the form that hints at it, but it’s EXTREMELY vague. Plan accordingly – you will be there for two whole days!
The duration of jury duty selection varies from place to place – my friend Arielle reported that jury duty was a week minimum in Tacoma, while another man claimed to have lived somewhere where jury duty was a two-week commitment during which he had actually been a juror at FOUR trials.
You can defer your service for a later date pretty easily – but you can only do this twice!
Daily Schedule and Most Importantly, Where Should You Eat Lunch?
Arrival time for day one of jury duty is 8am. I arrived at 7:30 so that I could snag a desk.
Court is in session from 9am-12pm (with a 15 minute break), and from 1:30-4pm (with a 15 minute break). That means that you get a 1.5 hour lunch, which gives you plenty of time to get through the long line at Il Corvo. You’d be taking a bit of a chance with Salumi unless you end up with an EXTRA long break, which is a definite possibility. My list of lunch spots in Pioneer Square is an extremely handy guide for jurors.
There is also a cafeteria in the Courthouse. It doesn’t look like much but it’s rumored to be pretty good!
Reporting for Duty
First of all, you may not even need to report! Check this website at 5pm the night before you’re supposed to be there.
Pools of jurors arrive at the King County Courthouse on either Monday or Wednesday and they stay for two days – either Monday + Tuesday or Wednesday + Thursday. The courts do not hear trials on Fridays – that’s the day they do all of their other business and sentencing.
You are instructed to arrive through the 3rd Avenue entrance (between Yesler & James) and you will need to go through security (much less stressful than an airport line but you must take your laptop out of your bag!).
Insiders tip: the 3rd Avenue security line gets LONG between 8:30 and 9am, and just after lunch between 1-1:30pm. There is a second entrance on 4th Avenue and the line is much shorter and faster!
Once you’ve sailed through security, you walk down the hall to the jurors room which is on the first floor. They scan your badge, point you in the direction of the plastic name badge holders, instruction sheets and a bio form that you will need to fill out (likely several times throughout the two days). After you’ve picked those up, you should find a seat.
Insiders tip: to the right of the check-in station is a little room with desks. I suggest holing up in there if you’ve got work to do. You will be a bit removed from all of the “action” but there are speakers and mounted televisions in the room so you’ll definitely know when things are getting started.
Let’s Get Motivated!
Once everyone has arrived (I’d guesstimate that there are probably 150-200 people summoned per cycle), they start trying to pump you up for your civic duty. They do this in the following ways:
- By showing a video that describes the jury selection process and why it’s an important part of our judicial system.
- By bringing an actual Judge down to inspire you and thank you for your service. Our Judge was actually quite humorous and I enjoyed her speech. She used a lot of funny quotes by famous people – such as “I was married by a judge; I should have asked for a jury” – Groucho Marx.
- With posters around the space of famous Seattleites who have been jurors, like Governor Jay Inslee, former Governor Gary Locke, baseball legend Edgar Martinez and hydroplane racer Chip Hanauer.
- By being extremely patient and friendly and constantly thanking you for YOUR patience.
The Selection Process (aka “Voir Dire”)
After you’ve been adequately inspired, the waiting game begins. Jury duty is mostly about waiting and then getting in different lines. Seriously.
- You wait to be chosen for a panel of 50 potential jurors.
- When your name is called, you write down the number you were assigned on that bio form you’ve filled out, and you take it to the front desk and exchange it for a laminated card with a number.
- When instructed, you and the 49 other potential jurors jockey to catch an elevator that only fits 8 people up to your assigned floor.
- Once you’ve reached the floor of your courtroom, you are met by your bailiff, who describes the next part of the process.
- The bailiff lines you up numerically and in a seemingly backwards manner which becomes clear once you enter the courtroom.
- You are led, like kindergarteners, into the courtroom, where jurors #1-12 or 14 are seated in the box, and the rest of you are seated on these hard wooden benches that are kind of like church pews (I say that having basically never been to church, but it’s uncomfortable).
- The judge introduces his or herself, thanks you for your service, and tells you the very basic details about the case and how long the trial is expected to last. Then the real fun begins.
This next phase of the selection process is the attempt to narrow down the pool of 50 jurors to 12-14 jurors who will actually hear the trial. This is where all the excuses you’ve invented to get out of jury duty will come in handy.
First, the judge explains the basic details of the case and reads off the names of people who are involved or may be called as witnesses. If you know any of these people, you must raise your laminated number card in the air and then state who you know and how you know them.
Then, the judge explains how long they expect the trial to last and then asks for everyone to please raise their laminated number card if the duration of this trial makes them ineligible to serve. Dozens of cards will fly up into the air.
The judge will go through and ask every single person who has put their card up why they will be unable to serve. Many of the excuses start with, “Your Honor, I would really LOVE to serve, but…”:
- “I have non-refundable plane tickets to _insert location_”. (My question: how often do people actually have refundable tickets?)
- “I have a newborn baby at home, and my wife is about to go back to work”.
- “I am the primary care provider for my sick _insert relative_”
- “I have to pick up my children from school.”
- “I am self-employed / the member of a small team and it will cause a financial hardship for me and my business.”
All of these are among the most acceptable excuses, though sometimes the judge will ask a follow-up question such as, “Are you the sole income-earner in your household? If not, how much does your spouse make?” Or, “Are you SURE there is no one you could ask to pick up your children after school?”
In one of the panels I sat on, the judge asked if anyone “was familiar with anyone in law enforcement?”, which turned into a whole long list of people who ranged from intimately acquainted with someone in a law enforcement (like, married to a cop) all the way down to “my sister’s husband’s cousin’s husband is a security guard”.
At this point, the judge will review their notes on all these answers and will then list and dismiss people based on the validity of their excuse. Those jurors who were excused don’t get to go home, unfortunately – they return to the jury waiting room and will likely get put into another pool of 50 people and go through the same process.
Then the voir dire process gets turned over to the attorneys. Their questions are designed to figure out how impartial of a juror you can be and are not intended to embarrass you, but nonetheless, may embarrass you. They go into a bit more depth around what the case will be about. For example, I sat on a panel for a case having to do with a bicyclist versus the driver of an automobile, and so our questions went something like this:
- “How many of you ride a bike regularly?”
- “How many of you drive a car regularly?”
- “How many of you agree that sometimes cyclists don’t obey the rules? How about drivers?”
- “Given your experience as a driver or a cyclist, do you feel that you can hear the facts of this case and be impartial?”
- “Do you believe that in most cases, a person is innocent until proven guilty?”
- “Do you think that eyewitness accounts are reliable?”
In our case, the prosecutor jumped around the room asking random jurors random questions, while the defense attorney went numerically down the line with her questions. Some people’s answers got them an immediate excusal, such as the woman who blundered her way through explaining that she has enough trouble making a decision in her own life that it would be near-impossible to make a decision that would affect another human being.
Once everyone has finished their questioning, the rapid-fire dismissal of jurors begins – no questions asked, no answers given. They start with the 12-14 people sitting in the box, and once the box seat becomes vacant, it is filled by the next person sitting on the hard wooden benches in the audience.
Example: There are 14 people in the box. Juror #3 is excused, Juror #15 then takes his place. Then Juror #6 is excused, and Juror #16 takes her place.
This goes on for awhile, until both the prosecutor and the defense agree that they “accept the panel”, and then you have a jury!
Hooray! I Escaped Being on that Jury! What Happens Next?
Your triumph should be short lived, because if it’s still your first day of jury duty, you return to the Jurors Room and your name is thrown back into the pool of potential jurors. You will likely get put into the next group of 50 for another case, and you’ll have go through the entire process again. If you’re smart, you will give the next judge a revised excuse as to why you can’t serve in order to make your situation sound more serious (the guy who was simply self-employed in the morning had managed to lose a $5K client by the afternoon).
I’m On a Jury – Now What?
Congratulations! You’re about to observe our justice system in action. You will be stuck with the same 12 people for several days and so you should definitely introduce yourselves immediately. You will not be allowed to research or discuss the facts surrounding your case. You will listen to testimony of witnesses and you will think, “this is nothing like television”. You may take notes and this is strongly recommended because these will be very helpful during deliberation!
They Call It Duty for a Reason
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have developed some pretty strong feelings about why jury duty is important.
I would argue that paying taxes and actually showing up for the occasional jury duty summons are basically the only things that you are asked for in exchange for the right to be a free citizen in this country. Voting, the only other civic duty I can think of, isn’t even required – you get the right to vote. Sure, plenty of us have had to earn that over time, but still. It’s not mandatory – and if you don’t do it, you still get to enjoy the benefits or burdens of election outcomes.
Secondly, it can be argued that this is the best judicial system in the world. It’s so good that they basically haven’t changed it in hundreds of years. Yes, it is flawed. DEEPLY flawed – but think about this: in a lot of countries, you don’t have the right to a trial by jury. And maybe if you do, it’s probably not an impartial jury. And you probably aren’t presumed innocent until proven guilty. So while you’re hating on the thought of completing jury duty, spend a few minutes considering the alternatives.
And on that note, god forbid you ever find yourself in a trial by jury, because you’ll be faced with dozens of people who don’t want to be there!
How the Process Could Be Improved:
- Given that 95% of people’s knowledge of the court system comes from television, maybe they could be a little more forthcoming about the process and take the opportunity to demystify things given they have a built-in audience. Explain to me what is happening while I am waiting around so that I don’t feel like my time is being wasted.
- Allow people to be proactive and to schedule their jury duty for a time that is more convenient. People could accept that this is something they are going to have to do at some point in their lives, and so they could select a time well in advance so that it causes less interference.
- Volunteering is always more fun with friends, and I imagine so is jury duty. It would have been fun to have someone around to talk to during the long breaks.
- Revise and then enforce the penalty for not reporting for jury duty. How many people are in our overcrowded jail because they didn’t go to jury duty? Is there a fine? No one seemed to be very clear about what the penalty was.
- Offer childcare. Maybe the fines from not going to jury duty could help fund a childcare program. (There was an ask made to help fundraise for a childcare program. I thought it was ridiculous that they have to solicit donations for such a thing.)