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Jury Duty

Montgomery County Circuit Court

Montgomery County Circuit Court

It didn’t take Montgomery County long to find me. I’d been living in Maryland about six months when I was notified of my selection as a prospective juror.

The initial notice comes by mail. It contains instructions for trying to get out of service, but Maryland is pretty strict and doesn’t allow an employment exemption, the only way I might claim exemption.

Anyway, it seemed to me that serving on a jury might be an interesting experience, so I was happy to give it a shot.

So, here I am in the jury waiting room, a hall that might hold about 500 people, in a pinch. We are about 375 strangers packed in here today, and it would start getting quite uncomfortable if there were any more of us.

The first 15 arrivals took up positions in the “quiet room,” which has better chairs. Another 10 got the pc’s at the back of the room. There is free wireless for the rest of us, but my phone says the connection is so slow that it’s not worth connecting.

The waiting room is almost new, so it’s clean and pleasant. People are sitting around using their laptops, pads and phones. A few luddites are actually reading books.

And all of this is important because most prospective jurors spend most of their jury duty just waiting around.

In our case, we had to be here at 8:30 am. We spent most of the hour from 9-10 being  congratulated for doing our civic duty and told how important it is – and receiving 5 minutes-worth of practical information.

At 10:30, the first 76 of us were called up. They go to a courtroom to see if they will be selected for the trial. Since there are six trials scheduled to start today, and a second group hasn’t been called yet, it doesn’t seem likely that it will be a short day. They sent another 200 of us to another trial at 1:30 (after giving us an hour-long lunch break.

They do call people up in numerical order, but being called early doesn’t mean much. Even if you are not selected for the trial you are first called up for, you have to come back to the waiting room as you could be sent to another trial.

The system varies by county, but in Montgomery County, the system is “one day or one trial.” That means that if you are not selected for a trial you serve only one day, but if you are selected, you serve for the duration of the trial. They say that once you have served, you won’t go into the lottery again for three to five years.

Of today’s trials, the staff says all are likely to last 1-3 days except one, which is estimated at six days. They allowed those who had good excuses (childcare, doctor appointments, etc.) to opt out of consideration for the long trial.

The state gives you a stipend of $15/day to cover expenses. You get an extra $5 if you are required to be at the courthouse after 6 pm. For a long trial, the stipend jumps to $50/day.

Of course, as a Federal Government employee, I get “court leave,” while on jury duty, so the stipend is all gravy. Best of all, it’s tax free!

They finally sent me to a court room at about 2:30 pm for voir dire.   Voir dire is the process of questioning potential jurors about their background and beliefs in order to determine whether they would be unbiased jury members for a particular trial.  The judge used an interesting semi-in camera technique for voir dire.  First he asked the whole jury pool, some 30 people, all of the questions, one at a time.  Each juror who had an afirmative answer had to stand up and give his or her number.  Then the jurors were called up to the bench by number and asked for their detailed answers out of earshot (mostly) of everyone except the judge and attorneys.

The case was one of personal injury resulting from an automobile accident.  Among the questions the judge asked was, “have you ever had an injury to your back, neck or head?”  That was the only question I answered affirmatively.  When the judge called me up and asked about my injury I told him, “a couple of years ago I was at a rock concert and suffered a crowd-surfing injury.  At that point, the plaintiff’s attorney, a huge man who looked more like a biker than an attorney, started cracking up.  I continued, “I was just standing there listening to the music when a young lady suddenly appeared in my arms; I had to have several sessions of physical therapy.”  Everyone broke out laughing at that point and the plaintiff’s attorney commented, “well, you can’t really complain about that!”

I was juror number 327.  The court accepted up to juror 325 for the jury, so I barely dodged the bullet.

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