There are, what, 10 million people in Los Angeles County? When the courts are looking for jurors, you can exclude a few million for being too young, too old or infirm, too incarcerated, too undocumented. But surely that leaves at least 2 million others eligible to serve on juries.
So where are they?
Every year or so, I get a jury summons. I’m the chaff, not the wheat; I’ve been kicked off every jury panel I’ve been provisionally placed on, most recently the Brandon Carter-USC shooting case. Even chaff has a role in the great machinery of justice.
But that case was barely three months ago. And what do I get in the mail last week? Another L.A. County Superior Court jury summons.
Seriously? The courts themselves say I’m off the hook for 12 months after my last jury service.
I mailed in the form, notifying the court of my very recent service, which they seem to have no record of or I wouldn’t be getting this form. That’s alarming.
I know Angelenos, born in this country, who brag that they’ve never been called for jury service or never responded to a jury summons, and they laugh at me for dutifully mailing mine in, which I do partly out of fear of getting hauled in for contempt if I ignore it and partly out of knowing that this is one rare instance when something is actually demanded of us as citizens. Short of reinstituting a draft, jury duty is about it.
But it’s hard not to feel like a sucker when the system seems to practice the maxim “No good deed goes unpunished.” What about those 2 million others? Are they ignoring their summonses and getting away with it? Or do they never get tapped in the first place?
A now-dead mentor and colleague, the sublime Dial Torgerson, who was blown up covering the 1980s civil wars in Central America, had a phrase for this self-sorting, from the days when he and his ilk had a Gibson cocktail or two at lunch:
“Those who return from lunch are expected to.”
The civic-minded people who clean up the trash left by heedless others; the people who do turn off their phones on the plane; the people who wait their turn on the on-ramp instead of racing by on the shoulder — they make the world habitable for the rude and selfish who do as they please. If the courts extended their juror dragnet beyond those who do answer the call, maybe they’d find everyone would take the jury system more seriously, not treat it as some algorithm lottery that keeps going after those who “return from lunch.”
The need is real: Since the three-strikes law took effect, one- and two-strike defendants who might have entered pleas now want jury trials. I have heard judges refuse to excuse as potential jurors pregnant women getting close to delivery, doctors who were solo practitioners, a man who said he would lose his job unless he could serve in a courthouse closer to his work, unemployed people hunting for jobs and people whose English seemed inadequate to basic daily tasks, much less courtroom evidence. I have been chewed out by judges because The Times pays for only two weeks of jury duty.
This is May, and May is Jury Appreciation Month.
I’d appreciate it if they’d call up some of those other 2 million people, and, for at least the decent interval of another year, leave me alone.