A Day in the Life of a Brooklyn Juror
It’s a dreaded card that arrives in the mail, ranking in nuisance level somewhere in the vicinity of doing your taxes and a day trip to the DMV. Jury duty is an obligation foisted on every English-speaking American; you must respond to those little purple cards, and if you don’t, you can go to jail.
I arrive Tuesday at 320 Jay Street in downtown Brooklyn, pleasantly surprised that the Kings County Supreme Court building that I’ve been told to report to is actually quite nice. As opposed to the TSA, security is friendly and easy, and they generously allow me to keep my shoes on. The light-filled, wood-paneled jury selection room is comfortable too.
I’ve filled out all of the forms; no, I’m not a Pacific Islander, but by now I have enough form-filling experience to know that it’s a very important question. A woman sitting at the front of the large room begins addressing the assembled over a microphone.
“Good morning!” she calls out.
“Good morning,” we all cheerily answer.
The room dims and a video begins to play. It’s like an instructional video that they show on airplanes, only this one doesn’t tell me that in case of an emergency I should help myself before helping children. All the actors are smiling ear to ear, thrilled to be part of our great judicial system at work.
“Oh, the joy!” their shining faces seem to say. “I’ve been picked for a Grand Jury!”
I hope some of those excited people are in the selection pool with me today; if they want it so badly I’ll just let them have it.
“Look at it not as an inconvenience but as an opportunity,” Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, explains on the video. “You will learn from the experience and carry that knowledge back to your family and friends.”
Well, that changes everything for me.
“Pick up your summon cards, and begin to tear sections A, C, and D away from the rest of the paper,” calls out our leader in the front of the selection room. I look around and watch as all 200 adults in the room slowly, painstakingly tear along the perforated lines. The giant room is silent save for the gentle sounds of grown adults obediently doing arts and crafts.
Next she starts calling out all those who are exempt. “Any parents of young children who have not made babysitting plans, please come up!” A few mothers go up to the front. “Anyone who has been convicted of a felony please come up to the front!” I shift nervously as the nice-looking man sitting next to me rises and joins the mothers and his fellow felons at the front. This quixotic group happily exits the room together.
“George Washington, please come to the front!” I start to snicker, looking around to see which juror played so clever a joke on the court. Then I see a man at the end of the room solemnly rise and head towards the front desk. I stop laughing. This fellow’s name is actually George Washington.
Then the waiting begins. I had arrived at 8:30 a.m., yet the first jurors are not called until 11:45 a.m. They read out some names, directing them through a pair of wooden doors. I am not on the list. Resigned to the day’s destruction, I wait patiently.
Finally, at 12:45 p.m., my name is called, and we are led like a group of schoolchildren into a smaller room where our names are called out again, one by one, to which we must respond, “Here.” George Washington is in my group, which makes me feel a little better. If a man with his lineage couldn’t get out of jury duty, then at least I’m in good company. Into elevators we’re herded, up to the 21st floor. This time, as we wait, we at least get to see a nice view. Still, how long can I stare at the Manhattan Bridge? I see President Washington agrees with me and has taken a seat as well.
Finally we are all led into the courtroom, where the judge, prosecutor, and defense stare us down as we enter the chamber. We take our seats. “All rise,” calls out the bailiff. We all stand up and raise our right hands to swear or, in my case, affirm that we will answer only the truth.
“Dear jurors,” the Judge addresses us, “we normally break for lunch at 1 p.m. and I would usually have you all return at 2:15 p.m. Today, however, we’re having a fire drill, so I’ll ask you all to come back at 3:30 p.m. See you then!”
Groans fill the room as we all file out into the elevators to exit the building. Exercising our civic duty isn’t as easy as we had all hoped.
I walk out towards Borough Hall Plaza where I see my fellow frum Jews eating sandwiches around a table. They direct me to Kosher Court. Mr. and Mrs. Baruch Ganz are a chassidishe couple who opened Kosher Court six years ago to serve the Jews who work in downtown Brooklyn. With fresh, mehadrin sandwiches, baked ziti, and pastries, they are a welcome sight for this weary writer’s sore eyes.
After discovering a Minchah minyan on the 10th floor of 26 Court, the building next door to Kosher Court, I come back outside, with another hour and a half to spare before I’m due back in court. I step into the Brooklyn Marriot located adjacent to my court house and sit down to write up my experience thus far.
As I sit, waiting to play my small part in the play that is the great New York State judicial system, I think of the life I led before I became a juror, just six hours ago. I resolve in my mind that in the future I will use my time more productively, more wisely, and not waste it. Today may not have been my choice, but tomorrow will be. Maybe I have gained something from this experience; maybe I have become a better, more reflective individual. Yes, tomorrow I will accomplish great things with my day. But will the court let me go?
I return to the court room at the appointed time, filing in with my fellow jurors, not knowing what to expect. The Judge welcomes us back and starts explaining the great responsibility that lies in our hands.
The defendant, a young woman in her 30s, is accused of murder in a hospital. We, regular citizens of Brooklyn representing a wide array of people, are asked if we can be impartial and only convict her if the evidence is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The case will last at least 10 days, but the consequences will last a lifetime. After a whole day of waiting I realize that the care that was going into the jury selection, although a nuisance, was an essential part of what sets the American judicial system apart from those that we as Jews had experienced in other countries we had collectively experienced in our past.
Fifteen minutes later I rise to explain to the Judge that I’m a freelance writer who needs to work to get paid. He smiles understandingly and dismisses me. But as I walk out into the wet heat of the Brooklyn air, I wonder if I would have been that upset if I hadn’t gotten out, if I did have to serve jury duty. I’ll have to wait six years until my next jury summons to find out.