If you’ve ever served on a jury, or haven’t but would if you could, then you were the star of Pierce County’s judicial system for a week last month.
Jury Appreciation Week was May 19-23 in recognition of citizens who, after receiving a jury summons in the mail, take time away from their families and jobs to be part of the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers. The salute to this cornerstone of government included some gastric delights. Cake, cookies and nachos were served to jurors who were on hand at the courthouse that week.
I’ve served on juries twice and enjoyed every minute. I’d covered trials as a reporter and thought I understood the process from virtually every perspective, but I learned some new things when I actually was part of them.
Making decisions that could dramatically alter another person’s life isn’t an easy responsibility, but it’s the backbone of our system of justice, says Ron Culpepper, the presiding judge of Pierce County Superior Court.
“Ninety-five percent of all the jury trials in the world happen in the United States because the jury system is embedded in our culture,” Culpepper said at a County Council meeting as Jury Appreciation Week was officially proclaimed. “The system wouldn’t work without the tens of thousands of people each year who serve for $10 a day.”
That token compensation is why some people with jobs chafe at and somtimes beg off from jury duty. They can’t afford to lose a real day’s pay, though some employers still pay workers for days they miss while juried up. People also often can’t spare the time away from work.
Those are factors in some citizens being excused from jury duty. Everyone else fulfills a fundamental civic responsibility by showing up at the courthouse when they’re called.
My wife answered the call in April and my daughter in May. The two-week commitments required them to call a courthouse phone number each weeknight and listen to a recorded message about whether they needed to report the next day.
Their experiences differed. My wife was in a pool of prospective jurors for a criminal trial and spent a good part of one day being questioned by the lawyers on either side of the case to determine if they could be comfortable with her helping decide the defendant’s fate. She eventually was turned down because her personal experience with and views about the type of crime involved in the case made it too hard for her to be objective.
My daughter, caught in the throes of planning her June marriage, saw jury duty as an acceptable but unwanted distraction. She was glad when her juror pool number never came up and didn’t have to spend a single day at the courthouse. Turns out it was a light two weeks for trials.
County Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg has her own unique story about jury duty. Her husband, John Ladenburg, was a newly elected prosecuting attorney for the county when her jury summons arrived in the mail one day..
“I was excited about it but didn’t expect to be chosen.. In fact, the presiding judge saw me walk in to the jury box and before I could even sit down, he jokingly told me I was excused,” Ladenburg said. “But I was eventually picked to serve on a jury, and it was truly a valuable experience. I highly recommend that anyone who receives the blue slip in the mail fulfill their civic duty and participate.”
Dispatch editor Pat Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com and 360-832-4697.