You've Been Summoned: Tips on How to Survive Jury Duty

Listen to this post on The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. 

When I was younger, I loved receiving mail. Pen pal letters! AOL free trial discs! Copies of my sister’s magazines that I would snatch before she saw them! The list goes on. But, as an adult, getting mail is not so fun. Outrageous bills from the IRS! Weirdly pointed letters from my landlord! And -- dun dun dun -- a yearly jury summons!

I usually don’t sweat getting a summons though because, in the past, I’ve always managed to get dismissed. Last year, I delivered a passionate rant about how messed up the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision is. It went a little something like this:

- "Corporations are not people and never will be, and nothing you can say will change my mind! I rest my case, your honor!"

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- "Um, sir, we just asked what your name and date of birth was. You can leave."

This year, my plan was to do something similar. I’d just rant about something else and be home by lunchtime, right? Yeah, not so much. 

For years, inspired by Oprah's favorite book The Secret, I have tried manifesting my longstanding dream of being a judge on RuPaul's Drag Race or Project Runway or Top Model (I’m not picky). At last, the universe heard my call... and responded by making me a juror on a three-week trial. NOT EXACTLY WHAT I HAD IN MIND, COSMOS!

But like Beyoncé, I was given lemons and I've decided to make some lemonade in the form of a survival guide for all you future jurors out there. Don’t delude yourself into thinking this doesn’t apply to you. They can snatch you up at any time, so listen up!

Okay, first things first:

Don’t ignore the summons, cause you might get arrested.

Sure, the cops probably have bigger fish to fry, but do you really want to tempt fate? We already know that people are being locked up for less these days, so just show up and do your civic duty. It’s all fun and games until you’re wearing a scratchy orange jumpsuit that totally washes you out.

If you do get summoned, don't despair. 

There is still hope! If luck is on your side, your week of service might simply involve calling to check if your group has been selected to report to the courthouse. And even if your group is called, there are still a few ways to get out of being picked for a jury.

One option is postponing your service. (But do you really want that black cloud hanging over your head for months? Personally, I prefer getting unpleasant things out of the way.)

Another option: If you have evidence of an upcoming trip that conflicts with the trial at hand, you will be dismissed. So if you really can't bear the idea of serving on a jury and have some extra coins on hand, you could always book a trip and bring the receipt to show the judge. 

Last option: If you can convince the judge that you have a legitimate hardship, you'll be set free. But the rules on this can be rigid, so don't try it without documentation. If you have a medical condition or are disabled, bring a note from your doctor. If you don't make enough money to take time off from your job, bring a pay stub. You get the idea.

Don’t be overconfident that you’ll be able to game the system.

Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw learned this the hard way, when she confidently trotted up the courthouse steps saying, "I'm just gonna tell them, 'Before 10am, as far as I'm concerned, everybody is guilty.' I figure I'll be out in no time!" She was mistaken.

Don't assume dressing up like a character from Star Wars and pretending to be a mind-reading hologram will work in your favor.

Just ask Liz Lemon from 30 Rock.

The questionnaire is your best bet for getting out of serving on a jury, so as RuPaul says...

Chances are you’re going to end up filling out a questionnaire, which the lawyers will use to gauge whether you might be biased. Lying is not a good idea because perjury is no joke, but do be forceful in expressing your views. Hopefully you'll scare off one of the sides.

The following day, a select few potential jurors are picked and grilled in front of everyone by the lawyers and the judge about their answers. This process is called voir dire, which is French for "this is the part when people start acting a goddamn fool."

One guy said he didn’t believe in the court system and thought we should bring back dueling. I’m guessing he’s a Hamilton fan? Needless to say, he was quickly excused.

Another dude said judging people was against his Chinese culture. The lawyer then asked a Chinese woman a few seats down from him if that was true, and she was like, That’s not a thing. He lying. They were both excused.

According to studies, lawyers use a combination of stereotyping you based on your demographic, stalking your social media presence (be afraid!), and keeping an eye on your overall vibe. They generally want open, reasonable people who might be receptive to what they’re selling, so if you don’t want to be on a jury, cross your arms and make a stink face.

If another prospective juror is saying something wild, like how killing someone in a duel is a preferable justice system than suing, you should use your non-verbal cues to seem like you’re agreeing with that person’s world-view. One of the lawyers might pick up on that and decide you’re bonkers by association.

If you’ve made it this far into the process and decide to stay quiet, you’re probably going to end up on the jury (sorry, introverts!).

Dress to under-impress.

What you wear is also important. If you dress the part, they’ll assume you’ll take the task seriously. If you dress down or wear something goofy, they will probably think I don’t want these problems, and let you go.

Don’t get drunk on your lunch break.

During the selection process, I was in a pool of hundreds of people, watching the unlucky group get grilled for hours. I assumed there was no way they would find something wrong with half of them, so I went to a bougie lunch spot, ordered fries, ceviche, and a strong cocktail. When I got back an hour and a half later, they were excusing potential jurors left and right. It was like the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones!

The clerk called out my name as a replacement. I drunkenly said "FML!" out loud. The people sitting around me were amused; I was not. Due to a mix of the cocktail and the overall nerves of hundreds of people staring at me, I accidentally ended up taking the wrong seat, which led to the judge publicly asking why I was sitting in the wrong place. I said "Oops, my bad," instead of "Oops, I am too drunk to be here right now!" So yeah, don’t drink and civic duty.

At first, I was in an alternate juror position, which means I would have to attend the entire trial like a regular juror, but wouldn’t have a vote in the end. I thought, An understudy?! Hell no! If I’m stuck here for weeks, I better be one of the stars. Thankfully, someone said something wild and I got to take their place in one of the prime spots. None of the lawyers took issue with my views, probably because they could sense I was a fair-minded Libra. I was promptly sworn in as Juror #8.

Okay, so you’ve been selected, and it’s the first day of the trial:

Don’t be late.

Everyone will hate you. If you don't show up on time, the lawyers, the people involved in the case, the witnesses, the clerk, the court reporter, the judge, and the rest of the jury have to sit around in silence until you show up. They will most likely use that time to plot your demise. 

If someone passes out, do keep calm and carry on.

On the first day of my trial, Juror #1, who was sitting directly behind me, complimented my shirt and said that she was looking forward to staring at my fly outfits for the next three weeks. I thought, OMG, how nice! She’s going to be my jury mom! 

A few moments later, during the judge's introduction, Juror #1 interrupted to say she wasn’t feeling well. And then everyone in the courtroom gasped. I turned around, and my jury mom was on her side, eyes wide open, twitching and unresponsive. Thankfully, one of the alternates was a nurse and took control of the situation, while everyone just stood around with their mouths open. Juror #1 eventually came to and promptly began violently puking. I stood there with fistfuls of tissues, not sure if I was helping or getting in the way.

Juror #1 ended up being taken out on a stretcher by paramedics (go ahead and add "lose consciousness and puke in front of everyone" to the earlier list of getting-excused options). So if this happens to someone at your trial, do your best to be helpful, even if you have no idea what you're doing.

Do get enough rest.

Trials can be VERY boring, so the risk of falling asleep runs high. Make sure to get a good night's rest, and whatever you do, avert your eyes from the '80s carpet! It’ll hypnotize you, then numb your mind, and before you know it, you’re doing that jerking-awake-from-a-two-second-slumber thing. Not a good look!

Do look on the bright side.

Sure, being on a jury is annoying and disruptive to your life, but take the glass-half-full approach and consider it a chance to get away from your office, experience a new commute, explore a new neighborhood, meet new people, catch up on your reading, and live a unique experience that you’ll then turn into content for your blog!

Don’t bring a cup full of ice and crunch on it for hours during emotional testimony.

One of the alternates ("she doesn't even go here!") did this. Like with lateness, everyone hated him for it. Or at least I did.

Do get to know the building.

Find the chill jury room with mood lighting and an outlet for your computer. But most importantly seek out the secret bathrooms. Peeing next to one of the defendants or hearing one of the lawyers fart will take all the gravitas and mystery out of the proceedings. 

Do make friends with the cafeteria people.

The days are long, and you’re not allowed to talk when trial is in session, so you’ll be starved for lunch and social interaction. The hard workers in the cafeteria have to deal with grumpy people all day. Be a sunbeam on their cloudy day! Not that you need more of a reason, but being kind sometimes comes with perks. I got a free lox bagel. Score!

Do take notes seriously.

It’ll help you in deliberation and you’ll get to reconnect with your cursive game. Also drawing quick sketches of the witnesses will help you remember who they are. There were almost two dozen witnesses in my trial, so things get a little murky by the end.

Do distract yourself.

As the days go on, you need to create some entertainment for yourself or you might go crazy from all the waiting. A game Juror #9 and I played was guessing whether the court reporter would wear open toe or closed toe heels that day. (It was open toe every day except for one, if you’re wondering.) Also, luxuriate in the weird moments, like when the court reporter suddenly screams, "NO NO NO! DON’T TALK OVER EACH OTHER! REPEAT THAT!"

Do resist the urge to be the foreperson.

After the arguments are done and deliberation begins, you and your fellow jurors will need to nominate a foreperson. If you're like me, you might initially find the prospect of being the star juror tempting, but don't fall for it! The role requires you to be a balanced moderator of sorts, so you end up spending more time making sure everyone is heard and feels comfortable (booooring!) than advocating for your own point of view. Plus, it's actually a lot of responsibility. Who needs the headache?

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

You don’t get to talk to your fellow jury members about the case until the end of the trial, so you end up relying on outward appearances to get a feel for people and their leanings. My jury was majority white straight men, so I assumed I would need to nudge them to be more empathetic in deliberation. But it was actually the women who sympathized less. Some of them critiqued the female plaintiff for not crying enough on the witness stand, a judgment they would most likely not lob at a male in her position.

It was shocking to me and ended up being a life lesson: don't discount people just because of who they are before all the evidence is on the table. Seems simple enough, but sometimes we all need reminding.

Those are the tips I have for you. If you still don’t feel prepared for your future life as a non rural juror and are craving pop culture representations of what jury life is like, watch Pauly Shore’s 1995 movie, Jury Duty. It has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and features Tia Carrere, a.k.a. the hot girl from Wayne’s World. And if you’re more into higher fare, you could also watch 12 Angry Men, which has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. You decide!

This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!

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