Monday, July 20, 2009

Jury Duty in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas

By Leslie Birdwell Shortlidge, Managing Editor at the Kirwan Institute

I served my two weeks as a juror in June of this year in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. It was not exciting. For those in the jury pool, it is about endless waiting in a large room with lots of magazines and jigsaw puzzles.

We began with orientation, a videoed dramatization of a European Dark Ages trial by dunking. Miserable looking people in ragged clothes waited anxiously by the shore of a pond to see if their accused relative would float (guilty) or sink (innocent). It was a bit Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I recalled highlights from the film, such as peasants gathering muck in front of Graham Chapman as King Arthur and the infamous “Bring out your dead!” scene.

But seriously, folks, I never sat on a jury. Lots of people don’t, apparently, but we prospective jurors were assured more than once that we were doing our duty by being available, not trying to duck out, being punctual, etc. Managing the jury pool must be like herding cats, and so I do believe that my presence, as one of many, was indeed helpful.

I did make it through one round of voir dire (literally, “speak the truth”) in the courtroom, and was present for another round for a case that was resolved during the lunch break. Our voir dire took place in one of the courtrooms, which are round, not like the ones on TV that more closely resemble a church or a theatre. And since there is no clearly defined front or center stage, the attorneys pace about the room, working from a wheeled podium that they turn this way and that, depending on whom they address. The attorneys ask permission of the judge before they haul the thing around, and there’s a courteous exchange of please-and-thank-you that seems more reminiscent of powdered wigs and m’lords rather than American-style casual. But make no mistake, even though this is “only” voir dire, the attorneys are making their cases and beginning to wage arguments that will influence the outcome. And the arguments were directed at us, the potential jurors.

We were encouraged to tell the truth, and then were grilled on common sense and experience, one by one, right around the room. I thought of Justice Sotomayor, someone who has been raked over the coals for invoking common sense. In my experience, it was a given in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court that everyone came to the courtroom with their own background as a human being and would have some kind of opinion or experience. How could it be otherwise? We are humans, not blank slates pre-loaded with some kind of generic justice program.

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