It starts one afternoon when you receive the letter, perhaps tucked between the coupon circular and the phone bill. It's a summons to report for jury duty at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, and it's the first indication that soon — and for a period lasting about a month — your life will be quite different.
I completed a round of jury service in February. It was my first time serving and I approached the experience with curiosity and anxiety. I hoped it would be interesting and that I could meaningfully fulfill my civic duty at a time when criminal justice issues in the city are critical.
But I received scant information about what was to come. I didn't know how to prepare, how I should manage my personal and professional affairs during the month of service ahead or just how my time would be put to use by the state.
What follows is a personal look at completing that service — and a survival guide of sorts. File it away for the day you find that summons between the coupons and the phone bill.
The basic jury duty process at Criminal Court begins when residents receive that summons ordering them to appear at the courthouse on a specified day. This is a quick visit. Jury commissioners simply register jurors and assign schedules for actual service to begin the following month.
My schedule called for eight days of service on each Tuesday and Thursday in February. Other jurors would report each Monday and Wednesday, though it's simple to change your own scheduled days during the month. When I asked a jury administrator for one such change, it was accomplished with a quick swipe of her pen.
Friends who had served on juries told me the chances of getting picked for an actual trial were slim. Some said they had simply reported as scheduled, read books in the jury pool lounge all morning and were released each day around lunchtime. That sounded easy enough. But that was then.
During eight days of jury service, I was called for six different trials to participate in voir dire, which is when the judge and attorneys question prospective jurors on their abilities to be impartial and ultimately select a jury panel to hear a case. By the end of the month I'd been picked for two trials. Robert Kazik, the court's judicial administrator, confirms this is an increasingly typical experience, and he says more jurors are being called to voir dire for multiple trials on the same day.
Your scheduled days, however, by no means dictate the days you may actually need to serve. Someone who turns up for his first Monday of service could be picked for a trial to begin Tuesday and which could wrap up in a single day — or run a week or more. Just because the court gives you a schedule of jury duty days, I quickly learned, doesn't mean you can schedule your own time and obligations around it. Your jury schedule is more like a framework that's subject to change as actual cases take shape. I had to ensure my schedule outside of jury duty could remain just as fluid.
On the first day of my service, Section H Judge Camille Buras welcomed our group in the jury pool lounge and presented an overview of jury duty. While I found this helpful, I also thought it came a bit late. I'd wondered about a lot of the material she covered since first receiving my summons a month earlier, and the information I found beforehand in the FAQ page on the court's website (www.criminalcourt.org) provided only terse and generic answers.
By contrast, when jurors in Jefferson Parish are summoned to the 24th Judicial District Court they can find a 16-page handbook on that court's website (www.24jdc.us), which explains the basics of the process from voir dire to final verdict. There's also an online instructional video (narrated in part by Gambit political editor Clancy DuBos, who says he volunteered to help with the court's production).
The courtroom basics these resources cover are universal enough to help Orleans Parish jurors, though one big difference is the Jefferson Parish court's "one day/one trial" policy. Under this system, those not selected for a jury during one day in the jury pool have fulfilled their duty, whereas New Orleans criminal court jurors are obligated to complete eight days. Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court Jon Gegenheimer says the much higher volume of cases in the New Orleans criminal court might make a one day/one trial model impossible there. The combined civil and criminal courts in Jefferson Parish try between 100 and 150 jury cases a year, he says.
Back in New Orleans, my jury duty days quickly assumed a familiar rhythm, which began by checking in with jury administrators at 8:30 a.m. in the windowless but comfortable jury pool lounge in the courthouse basement.
Here I'd sit with a randomly selected cross-section of New Orleans humanity, all of us waiting for each of the 12 judges working on the floors above to make their requests for that day's first juries. Then in the courtrooms, voir dire would begin and we would each wait to be selected for a jury, sent back to the lounge to await another call from a judge or to be released for the day.
My peers in the pool came from all walks of life. There was the young woman who wore nursing scrubs, the woman in a business suit and the man in the Rouse's supermarket uniform, all dressed as if they hoped to make it to work at some point that day. Some people wore New Orleans Saints jerseys or warm-up suits, others arrived in preppy casuals and one man sported a jacket glimmering with Carnival krewe medals. The musician Chaz "Washboard Chaz" Leary was in my pool, as was drummer Jason Marsalis. The majority were black, most of the rest were white and there was a small sampling of Latino and Asian people. Some college-aged people lugged textbooks; others were clearly retired. Some worked furiously on laptops and cellphones at any chance; others read books, knit and watched daytime TV.
Court officials frequently remind jurors that their experience with the judicial system will likely seem far less gripping than courtroom dramas on TV and film. They're not kidding. Even while I sat through an afternoon of voir dire for a murder case, with the defendant seated just a few yards away, the inherent tension of the proceedings was smothered by the mundane and repetitive process of interviewing juror after juror. Only a portion of all the jurors called to the courtroom are interviewed at once, and while everyone else is supposed to pay attention, many turn to books and crossword puzzles, some fidget with muted cellphones and others simply doze off as the hours tick past. I memorized the appearance of people sitting in the rows before me, like the woman with dyed yellow curls and the Bluetooth device attached to her ear, or I traded whispered commentary with my neighbors along the bench about which jurors being interviewed would make the cut.
Even by the second day, it was clear that my fellow jurors had picked up a few tricks for handling the court's routine. Some brought along breakfast to eat in the jury lounge; others were now toting lunch sacks. There was less of a scramble to get into the building on time, too. More people had learned that by using their juror ID badges they could access the building's side entrance facing South Broad Street, which proves much faster than queueing up at the main entrance with the day's defendants, witnesses and other visitors.
The courthouse has many rules, and it's worth decoding which may be disregarded or don't apply to you. For instance, signs indicating that cellphones are prohibited in the building nearly sent me back to my car to ditch mine on my first visit. But jurors are free to bring phones and even laptops to use in the jury pool lounge, just not in court. This proved to be my lifeline. Each morning I took a seat in the jury's "quiet room" — a space apart from the main lounge and free of TV noise and cellphone conversations — and there I tried to complete as much work as possible on my laptop before the calls for juries began, typically an hour to 90 minutes into the morning.
Then there's food. Signs outside one courtroom promised a 24-hour jail sentence for anyone eating or drinking inside, yet when I entered I noticed court employees drinking coffee. Later, sheriff's deputies would bring the judge coffee at the bench. When another juror discreetly passed around candy, I wondered when anyone was last sent to jail for snacking in court.
Food, in fact, is a preoccupation. When you're picked for a jury, a court-provided meal is usually part of the deal. Judges make frequent reference to these meals from the bench, promising takeout from specific restaurants for those selected for juries. Court employees are forever wheeling around cases of soda or sandwich platters on the same carts others use to haul evidence into the courtrooms. Jurors waiting in the jury pool or sitting through voir dire are given periodic updates on predicted upcoming lunch breaks, which during my stay lasted anywhere from more than an hour to less than 20 minutes.
It's easy to feel like a number in jury duty, and indeed that's essentially how jurors are managed. Names are selected at random for each group of jurors sent up to a courtroom for voir dire, and jurors are lined up and seated in the court by a number assigned to each of us. Such regimented control — with the need to request bathroom breaks, to raise hands for attention, to stand and deliver when called upon by judges and attorneys — was reminiscent of school days. Perhaps that explains the popular urge to rebel against it. When my friends first learned I was headed for jury duty, some volunteered advice for getting out of it.
"When they ask you questions, just act crazy, say you don't believe in laws or something," one said.
"Just wear a Che Guevara T-shirt," came another suggestion. "They'll cut you for sure."
But no such hijinks would get you excused from jury duty outright. When you're not serving on a jury, you're back in the jury pool, waiting to get called up to a courtroom or be released for the day. In any case, you're destined to return for your next scheduled day until month's end.
Those ineligible for jury duty include convicted felons, people under age 18, people who can't speak English and people who aren't U.S. citizens. People over age 70 may bow out when summoned, though many elect to serve. (Court officials frequently, and perhaps wishfully, reminded us in the jury pool that residents may volunteer for jury duty any time.) Just about everyone else is fair game, which was brought home for me when I met local criminal defense attorney Dylan Utley in the jury lounge. The fact that he worked in trials involving the same judges and prosecutors he might see as a potential juror did nothing to excuse him from jury duty, though Utley was never picked for a jury during our month of service.
The criminal court is increasing the number of jury trials it conducts, which means the court needs more jurors and it needs these jurors for more cases. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has been outspoken in his campaign to conduct 600 jury trials in 2011, which would more than double last year's rate. Some have questioned if that's attainable, citing the strain it would put on the city's jury pool, among other factors. But whatever the year's final tally, it's clear things are getting busier in the courthouse. In 2006, the criminal court called up 370 residents each month for its jury pool, according to Kazik. By September 2010, that monthly pool had increased to 530 jurors, and this month it rose again to 650 jurors.
Residents are eligible for jury duty every two years — and with the city's population lower, the number of jury trials rising and the voter registration rolls and drivers' license data catching up with post-Katrina address changes, Orleans Parish residents now have a better chance than ever of being called to serve. It's not bad ... but bring a book.