Talk of the Town - One angry man June 12 2003

And the jury's still out

Is there a shortage of jurors in this country? Our two-person household has received five jury notices in as many years. Chief Justice and Mrs. Oliver Wendell Holmes didn't sit on that many cases.

I know, the jury movie says we shouldn't kvetch. In the jury lounge, they show that creaky film explaining jury service: It's not just an obligation, it's a cherished legacy handed down to every liberty-loving citizen of the Republic. Americans fought and died for the right to trial by jury.

I object, your honor. First, to the movie. Do you ever see it at Blockbuster? Of course not. Nobody would rent it. The acting is bad, there are no special effects and the plot — boy meets jury, boy gets jury, boy leaves courthouse swelled with juridical pride — is fatuous. The director can only get people to watch it by confining them to a jury room. He must have a brother who's a judge.

Second, I object to the logic. Americans have fought and died for a variety of noble causes, including the desire to keep innocent fellow Americans from being arbitrarily summoned by the state and confined against their will. If that isn't a definition of jury service, call me out of order and issue a contempt citation.

The morning of my most recent jury summons, I was confined to the jury lounge for four hours, with an hour off for a Fulton County Courthouse cafeteria lunch (which I had to pay for, by the way) involving exposure to more noxious fumes than a Woorld War I mustard gas attack. Having arrived punctually at 8:15 a.m. (threat of jail will do that to a man), I was not called into an actual courtroom until 1:30 p.m. Even deducting that Geneva Convention-forbidden lunch experience, it meant 240 minutes in limbo.

I don't care what line of work you're in, anywhere else in America you'd be out of business if you kept a customer waiting four hours. Why the delay? A crime is committed every nanosecond and there isn't a trial to be had? Put me in, judge — I'm ready to play.

Then there's the competitive salary. A day's jury service earns you 25 dollars. Divide by eight hours, round up the half-cent, and that's $3.13 an hour. I haven't made that kind of money since mowing Mrs. Sweeney's lawn — and in an excess of youthful exuberance, her bed of calla lilies — the summer after eighth grade. The old bat never hired me again. Then she came over and mowed down our bed of calla lilies. Talk about justice.

But now I'm sitting in a courtroom room looking at: a well-fed judge whose salary is six figures per annum; a defense attorney with a slick practice that hauls in even more; and an assistant DA who, judging by the quality and cut of her outfit, ain't scavenging in dumpsters. None of them graduated law school to pull down $3.13 per.

What kind of justice do they expect for less than minimum wage? You want cheap, you get cheap. People still talk about the travesty that was the first O.J. Simpson trial, but it's a wonder that jury didn't award him a free set of golf clubs in addition to letting The Juice walk.

There's trouble behind the bench, too. Judges used to have impeccable integrity, a stern

demeanor and weird, impressive extralegal monikers such as Learned Hand. Nowadays, judges are driving drunk, getting shot by estranged lovers and renting Jaguars on the taxpayer cuff. And that's just in the last few weeks. We should be getting notices for judge duty, not jury duty. After all, how hard could judging be? You bang stuff around, tell people to put a sock in it and act grouchy. That's me every morning before the first cup of coffee.

The legal system also fails in its promise to guarantee trial by a jury of one's peers. The guy we were looking at was accused of armed robbery. Now he's being scrutinized by an insurance adjuster, a janitor, a bookkeeper, two salesmen, three soccer moms and a nearsighted newspaper columnist. When it comes to life experiences, we are not this guy's peers. What do we know about pulling a heist?

No, criminals should be judged by other criminals. Let me add that they'd be truer in their judgments than a gaggle of ignorant good citizens. A jury of experienced armed robbers would critique the defendant's caliber of weapon, choice of getaway car and quality of penmanship in the note he slipped the bank teller.

Call me a crackpot, but this kind of peer review can be effective. Hey, if I ever wind up as a defendant, get me a jury of nearsighted columnists.

Next case.


Glen Slattery is guilty as charged in Alpharetta.