Speaking of how our measures of time are being altered in our fast paced world, when a “minute” of silence becomes a “moment” of silence, which literally becomes four seconds of silence at a college football bowl game to acknowledge the deaths of six people in the Gabrielle Giffords shooting case, I got a lesson last week about a different time warp: Legal time.
I was appearing in Mercer County Superior Court in Trenton. The judge, Janetta Marbrey, was announcing a brief recess. “I want to give the attorneys a five-minute break,” the judge said. “Now just to be clear,” she added, with a smile, “five minutes means ten minutes in legal time.” It was 3:13 p.m. We had been in court since 10:45 a.m. I steeled myself to return at 3:23.
At this point I should assure readers (or perhaps disappoint some) that I was not in court because of any criminal wrongdoing on my part, or even alleged wrongdoing. I was there because I had received the dreaded notice for jury duty, the notice that most of us try to forestall. It’s the call to civic duty that seems terribly unfair — daily trips to Trenton (if you are a Mercer County resident) or New Brunswick (for Middlesex) where you face long hours of doing nothing while lawyers and judges wrangle in back rooms. In exchange you get $5 a day.
When I first moved to New Jersey I didn’t vote for years because I heard that jurors were called from voter registration records. That changed to include drivers license data. Now, as was explained to me last week in the jury reporting room on the second floor of the Mercer County Courthouse at 175 Broad Street in Trenton, they also draw names from property tax records, unemployment records, income tax records, and Social Security rolls. In the search for a jury of your peers, no stone is left unturned — though I am pretty sure death records are still off limits.
At various points in the process the judiciary notes that it hopes “you have a meaningful and rewarding juror experience.” It sounds a little hollow but the last time I was called for jury duty — in the late 1990s in a criminal case that required a trial stretching over three weeks — it turned into just that.
The case was a white collar crime, and the “victims” were all businesses and institutions in the greater Princeton business community. In the “voir dire” (speak the truth) examination of prospective jurors, I told the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney that I knew the principals of many of the companies involved and that some of them were advertisers in U.S. 1. Everyone shrugged and I was seated on the jury — they really do need jurors after all.
The trial and the deliberations of the jury were fascinating. As soon as the verdict was rendered (the defendant ended up serving a year in jail thanks to us jurors), I began banging out notes from memory about the events of the preceding three weeks.
A week into that process, my house was burglarized, the laptop on which I was taking notes was stolen, and the wind fell from my sails. I was just too busy trying to catch up on all sorts of other work to retrace my steps on the trial story.
This year I finally got called again. The process clearly has been streamlined in the early 21st century. For a Monday morning appearance, you can go online late afternoon on Friday to find out whether you will need to appear. By late afternoon on Monday, I found out from the same online posting that I would be needed on Tuesday.
On Tuesday the entire day’s allotment of jurors was packed into the “jurors’ room” on the second floor. I ballparked the number at 200. A video featuring New Jersey’s chief justice, Stuart Rabner, reminded us that no matter how inconvenienced we may feel, other people in other countries are literally fighting for the right to have trials by a jury of their peers.
Jury manager John R. Saunders then invited people with conflicts — including vacations, doctors’ appointments, or other hard-to-break scheduled events — to come forward and present their argument for being excused on the spot. More than 20 came forward. Hmmm, I thought, the pool is beginning to shrink.
Then 40 names were called for the pool at one of several trials scheduled to begin that day. I was one of those called to the third floor courtroom of Judge Marbrey.
The judge explained that the case, Lukaszewski, Gocal, Ogrodnik, and Klysinski against Jasticon Inc., involved a claim of wrongful termination under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employees Protection Act. The trial was expected to last three days.
The judge asked if any of us knew any of the plaintiffs or defendants or any of the scheduled witnesses personally. We were all given questionnaires to be filled out, asking whether we had even been involved in litigation ourselves and whether we counted lawyers among our family and close friends, among other questions.
At that point eight names were called at random, leaving 32 of us in the available pool. One of the original eight said she knew several of the plaintiffs because they used the post office where she worked. Neither of the attorneys called for her to be removed from the panel. How hard can this be, I thought.
But the examination of the jury had only just begun. Each one of them was taken to a side room with the judge and the attorneys for a private review of their questionnaire. At the conclusion of that review some of them headed straight for the exit — for whatever reason they had been excused.
If a prospective juror passed the private review of the questionnaire, he or she still had to respond to a set of questions posed in the open courtroom. What’s your occupation? What are your hobbies? What academic degrees do you have? Do you participate in social media? (Facebook was named more than all the others combined.) What’s the occupation of your spouse or significant other?
The lawyers, exercising their right to preemptively challenge a specific juror, kept knocking one juror after another off the panel, including some who had been on since the first random draw. As the numbers dwindled, I began to hope I would be called. The questionnaire asked us to list any other information that seemed relevant. I had written: “Reporter, planning to write an article on everything that I see and hear.” I figured that a juror would learn a lot about employment law in this case, and I could share it with the U.S. 1 audience.
One woman, ultimately picked for the jury, said she was a divorced mother of four children. The judge interrupted her: “You say you’re divorced — what did your former spouse do?”
“Nothing,” the woman answered. Everyone in the court, including the judge, broke into laughter. The woman was seated.
By 3:13, when Judge Marbrey announced the five-minute break, which we were to assume was really 10 minutes, I counted only 13 of us left in the pool that started out at 40. We potential jurors and those sitting on the panel were back in our places at 3:23 sharp. The judge returned at 3:28 — five minutes had turned into 15. Legal time.
The defense made one more challenge — of the postal worker who hours before had said that she recognized some of the plaintiffs as customers at her post office. Another name was called (not mine) and that person became the eighth and final juror. At 3:35 the judge excused the 12 remaining people in the pool. The jury stayed on for what the judge had said would be a trial lasting no longer than Friday. Both attorneys had assured her that they needed no more time than that.
On the following Monday, I called the judge’s office, identified myself as a reporter, and asked if a verdict had been reached. No, I was told, the trial was not yet over. No surprise. We were on legal time, after all.