About every 5 or 6 years, I am called for jury duty in my home county of Essex in New Jersey. My first stint was in 1982, back when jury duty lasted two full weeks and even if you got on one case, you had to stay the whole time, or longer if you were called for a second case. This was still the case in 1987, the next time I was called. So twice I got out of work for two full weeks, got paid in full by my company, read a lot of books and made new friends. And back then there were no computers, wireless or otherwise, to keep a person in touch with the office.
Times have changed since then. Now jury duty only lasts a maximum of two days, or one case, whichever is longer, and if they don't need you, they let you know the night before via a recorded message. Last time I served, I was dismissed after only one day. I was called to one panel and seated as part of a jury that was to hear a case of medical malpractice. As a fanatic about anything medical, I was thrilled at the prospect. But I must have looked too pleased and the attorney for the defense dismissed me.
The old Essex County petit jury area was in the old courthouse building and lacked modern conveniences. There was one room with a television, another without, and some chairs out in the hallway. It was conducive to reading but not much else, so I always brought a couple of good books.
Now they have built a brand new juror assembly area in a two-story addition to the courthouse which was part of a major overhaul of all the whole court complex, thanks to the ambitious and effective County Executive, Joe DiVincenco, or "Joe D" as his constituents call him. A champion of historic preservation (the historic Essex County Courthouse was completely restored under his stewardship) and local parks, he has accomplished a lot so far, with more to come.
I have to say the new jury building is a major improvement in the juror experience. I never really minded the surroundings before, as I had my nose in a book the whole time. But it is a much more pleasant, modern atmosphere now, with many more comfortable seats, several large, flat screen TVs in each room, and a separate computer room with individual cubbies and wireless internet access, where we jurors can log in on our laptops and check e-mail, work remotely, or of course, surf blogs and go on Facebook.
Many people object to having their lives disrupted by jury duty and try to get out of their task. While, as a creature of habit, I would ordinarily prefer to just go about my daily business, I never try to get out of jury service.
I served on three different cases back in the 1980s and it made me realize how important the whole jury system is. I was impressed with the thoroughness of the evidence presented and how seriously everyone on the jury took their duties. No one was voting guilty or not guilty just to get the case over with and get back to their lives. The juries I served on discussed the cases intelligently, seriously and with great sincerity. There were no slackers and everyone took a stand no matter how many people might disagree. Despite differing opinions, we were able to eventually reach a verdict on all three cases.
The other part of the experience is that the jurors become close after deliberating a few times. On breaks we often ate lunch together in the cafeteria or even went out somewhere together. We weren't allowed to discuss the case, but we enjoyed getting to know one another. I'm sure some jurors even became friends and kept in touch after the case they served on had ended.
Now that the new facility has so many amenities, it may actually discourage the camaraderie that people tended to enjoy during jury duty, as some of us are squirreled away in our cubbyholes working on our laptops instead of chatting. However, there is still a large contingent of people seated at tables near the coffee area, talking and getting to know each other, so perhaps not that much will change after all.
I am still waiting to see if I'll be called for a case. I hope in a way that I will - being on a case is always very interesting, and I was sorry not to get on one last time.
One thing I do believe is, that everyone should serve on jury duty at least once in their lives. It is important to understand how the process works and realize how essential the services of ordinary people are in deciding the fate of those accused of a crime. My experiences as a juror have taught me that in most cases this process works very well and that if I were ever accused of a crime, I'd feel I was in good hands. It's good to know.