As we approach the thrust of the 2016 election cycle, my recommendation to anyone thinking about running for elected office is to volunteer for jury duty. Forget about focus groups, market research or polling — if you want an unadulterated view of the electorate, head to your local courthouse.
That’s where I found myself Wednesday after being called for jury duty. I did my best to get out of appearing, but you can only postpone the inevitable for so long. Going into the jury assembly room, I knew there was no possibility I would be selected for a panel (more on that later), but the bureaucracy required that I go through the motions.
— Walking into the Pinellas County Justice Center on 49th Street, I can attest, well I should say that my lungs can attest, that if there is one demographic still loyal to Phillip Morris and the tobacco companies, it’s those
caught up in, involved in the judicial system. The 50 square feet outside the doors to the courthouse reeked of cigarette smoke more than a Kentucky dive bar. Stressed-out lawyers … overworked clerks and staffers … nervous defendants … all sharing one last puff before meeting their fates.
— If only the TSA security checkpoints moved with the efficiency of the one I walked through yesterday. Of course, it’s easy to understand why the airport line moves slower than the one into the courthouse: the boys and gals in blue aren’t armed, while the Sheriff’s deputies are. Try sneaking a pocketknife by them and things could get nasty very quickly.
— No matter how many times prospective jurors and others appearing before the court are told NOT TO WEAR SHORTS, there’s always that guy — you know the guy, he’s the one with the eyebrow piercing — who insists on wearing shorts to court. And then he’s shocked (!) and angry when the judge sends him home and tells him not to come back until he knows how to dress like an adult.
— The lady behind the desk in the jury assembly room has heard it all. Your kid is sick. Your boss is gonna fire you. Your dog ate your homework. Save it. She can’t dismiss you from jury duty. So, please, just shut up, sit down and fill out the questionnaire on the clipboard.
— “Manspreading” has traveled from the New York City subways” to Florida. Man spreading is the practice of sitting with legs wide apart, thereby covering more than one seat. Your balls do not get their own seat, fellas. Move over and let the lady sit down!
— Extra cologne does not substitute for a lack of deodorant.
— I don’t know what you call the guy in charge of the jury assembly room. Supervisor. Chief. Pit boss. Whatever. But he runs a tight, smooth ship. He’s the ideal middle manager. He has been given enough responsibility so that he actually cares about his job. But his job is not so important that he’s let the “power” go to his head. There’s a fine line there.
— It’s clear from the instructional video played to all prospective jurors that judges don’t especially care for the advent of social media. The warning that there is “no blogging … no Facebooking … no tweeting” about a case was repeated again and again.
— Yet the jury assembly room and the rest of the Pinellas Justice Center had excellent WiFi.
— In true bureaucratic tradition, me and my fellow potential jurors were given a 30-minute break after only being at the courthouse for 40 minutes. How about we save the break and just get on with the festivities?
— Prima facie evidence that the Wall Street-driven economy isn’t booming for everyone: more prospective jurors went straight to pick up their $15 (!) for their service than to the bathroom, cafeteria, or to smoke. These people wanted their 15 bucks.
— The greatest cafeterias in the world are all located in government buildings. There are only two guaranteed benefits to working in government: 1) access to affordable, comprehensive, life-changing healthcare insurance and 2) access to affordable, life-changing cafeteria food. The scrambled eggs at the Pinellas Justice Center tasted like they had been prepared by Thomas Keller. The biscuits and gravy are better than your grandmother’s.
— Fortunately, I was the first juror — out of a couple hundred — selected for possible service. Twenty-three other prospective jurors and I headed to Courtroom 20. At this point I was thinking, “I might be out of here before lunch.”
— A note about the potential jury pool before we saw the defendant we were to cast judgment upon. All but one of the prospective jurors was not black. How could this be? Especially since juries formed from all-white jury pools in Florida convicted black defendants 16 percent more often than white defendants.
— The defendant was a young adult white male. Read: the case is either for domestic violence or DUI. Turns out it was for a DUI charge.
— Our judge was recently appointed Myriam Irizarry, which I found interesting because she was just tapped by Gov. Rick Scott on July 7.
— The first question asked by the assistant state attorney was, on a scale of 1 to 10, one being not at all enthused and 10 being excited, how eager are you to serve on today’s jury. I was blown away by the responses. The first respondent said he was a 5, maybe a 6, meaning he’s not at all put out by the prospect of jury duty. Most of the respondents answered 5 or higher, there were even some 8s and 9s. Here I was strategizing how to answer the lawyers’ questions in a way that makes me impossible to seat while not pissing off the judge and my fellow citizens who were tripping over each other to serve on the jury.
— The first moment I felt like an as*hole: when the former Marine turned day laborer asks to be excused because he feels like he’s done his civic duty and he just can’t afford to miss work. I was trying to get out of jury duty so I could drive to Tallahassee to appear on a TV show.
— The second moment I felt like an as*hole: when the elderly gentleman sitting behind me says he wants to serve on the jury because he’s “fed up with how the Constitution is being attacked lately.” He is later picked to serve on the jury.
— My answer to the 1 to 10 question: “1, because although it should be zero, my wife and I are potty-training our daughter so any break from that is a welcome respite.”
— What would lawyers be without sports metaphors? Five, six, seven times during the voir dire process, both the State and the Defense employ convoluted references to sports to explain complicated legal concepts.
— Actual question: “If you went to Iowa and there was no college football playoff system and a panel picked the top 10 teams instead and half of that panel was made up of Iowa State fans, would you think that is fair?” I got what the lawyer was asking, but who would ever believe Iowa would be playing for the national championship.
— Later, the potential jurors are asked if they can be neutral, which is a trick question by the Defense. A juror is not suppose to be neutral because a defendant is presumed to be innocent. As counsel for the Defense explains in yet another sports metaphor, the defendant comes into the courtroom up by two touchdowns; it’s up to the State to prove otherwise. One of the most eager jurors is forced to backpedal from his answer that he could be “very neutral.” You can see his hope of being on the jury fading. He says he’s unemployed. He says he spends his days taking care of a dying dad. He says he can be a neutral juror because “I play Dungeons and Dragons and I am always neutral.” He is eventually dismissed from the jury pool.
— About being unemployed: At least 10 of the 24 potential jurors said they were unemployed. Again, that recovering economy we hear so often about has not yet made it to all quarters.
— It’s Murphy’s Law or a Peter Principle or something like that that there must in every group be one individual determined to ask the most tangential questions even though they have no possibility of impacting the events at hand. “Your Honor, what if I am picked for this jury and there is a tornado that strikes the building and kills everyone in it, how will I get a note to show my boss that I appeared for jury duty?”
— Since it is a DUI case, we are asked about how often we drink. I am again blown away by the answers. “Never.” “Only on Christmas and my birthday.” “Only on my birthday.” “One glass of wine a week.” “I’ve never drank alcohol in my life.” Who are these teetotalers?
— My answer to the drinking question: “Often. Like I said, I work in politics.”
— The most powerful factor at work in the courtroom? The power of lunchtime. The judge, lawyers, bailiffs, staff, and jurors were all slaves to the clock. As noon approached, the pace picked up substantially just so everyone’s precious lunchtime break was not put in jeopardy. All the while, some poor schmuck’s future was in the balance.
— As expected, I am not picked for the jury. In fact, I was no longer asked questions after I said something about how I was inclined to side with the defense since no one would contest a first-time DUI charge unless they absolutely believed themselves to be not guilty.
— Before leaving the courtroom, I nod at the defendant and lip “Good luck.” I ask the assistant state attorney if I can stick around to see how things turn out. He is not amused.