by Daniel B. Frye
Jury service is one of those civic responsibilities that most people accept only reluctantly--sometimes even grudgingly. I am in the minority here; serving on a jury has always appealed to me as an exercise in watching human behavior. Both the characters in criminal and civil trials and the chemistry of a group of strangers deliberating on questions of fact and law seem to me ripe with potential for observation and thought.
Despite being registered to vote since the age of eighteen, I had never been summoned to jury service until February of this year. After graduating from law school, I concluded that my opportunities for jury service would now be limited, since people with a legal education are often excluded during voir dire (jury selection). So I was pleased to receive a summons to appear in the Maryland Circuit Court for the City of Baltimore on March 31, 2009.
I arrived a half hour early at the juror entrance of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in downtown Baltimore, where I met Stephanie, a cynical young administrative assistant for a property management company who had taken the bus into the city for what she called “a day of jury hell." We made small-talk about books and local politics on the steps of the courthouse before prospective jurors were admitted to the building. She had served three times in the last three years, and she agreed to take me under her wing until we were separated. Then Judy, a financial analyst for a health insurance company, arrived, grumbling that this would be her fourth time to serve and, she hoped, her fourth time not to be selected. As we filed through security, I commented that, if I had to invest a day here, I hoped to be put to use. Both Stephanie and Judy good-naturedly offered to give me their juror numbers to increase my chances for selection.
After scoping out seats in the rear of one of the three jury holding rooms, we were told that one of the judges had died in the last several days so all 999 of us were expected to be called since they were trying to reduce the backlog of cases caused by the court's closure for the funeral the previous week. We watched a video extolling the virtues of jury service as a civic duty and reviewing the history of trial by jury as a constitutional right. We were then advised of the local courthouse rules for jurors, informed of the general grounds for juror exclusion, and invited to register by number and collect our $15 pay for the day.
When jurors four hundred to five hundred were called, I went forward to be processed. Stephanie and Judy wished me luck. They were not part of my group, so they promised to save my seat for the long wait ahead. I presented my identification card and summons to the woman behind the table. She paused uncomfortably, then asked me to wait while she turned to one of her colleagues for a whispered conversation about the fact that I was blind. Returning her attention to me, she explained that courtrooms in the circuit court were in two buildings, the main building, where we were, and one directly across the street. She told me that she would indicate for the record that I was not to be called for a jury pool outside the building. I replied that I appreciated her thoughtfulness but that I would be fine crossing the street, especially considering that jurors were escorted in a group by court staff from the jury holding room to any of the courtrooms in the complex. She acknowledged my reply and assured me that she would take care of the matter. By the way, I was wearing a jacket and tie in case I was legitimately excused from service and could go to my office, so she could not have written me off as a ne’er-do-well.
I returned to my seat and told Stephanie about the staffer’s doubt of my ability as a blind person to function. Abandoning the banter of our morning's conversation, I explained the challenges that blind people face being seated on juries. I talked about our legislative campaign to adopt jury nondiscrimination laws in the fifty states. Stephanie was sympathetic and commented that in the past as an African-American woman she too would have faced arbitrary exclusion from jury service. Lightening the mood, she again said that she did not really want to serve today, but she would not want to be excluded because of her race. I assured her that I had resolved the matter, and we settled back to wait for the first jury pool call.
Within half an hour the lead staff member called for jurors 428 to 547, with the exception of juror 458, to report to Judge Pearson's courtroom, number 329, across the street. They were told to meet at the front door of the courthouse to be escorted by circuit court staff across the street and into the appropriate courtroom. Alarmed to be the only one excluded from this series of numbers and mindful of my experience during registration, I immediately inquired why I had not been assigned to this jury pool.
I was met by a deputy sheriff, in the room to answer questions and keep order. I explained my concern and said I suspected I had not been selected because I was blind, so he made further inquiries on my behalf. He returned to report that the decision was to have me assigned only to courtrooms in the main building. I protested that such a restriction would not be necessary, but he assured me that because of the backlog there would be ample opportunity to serve on a jury and that the decision was final. Preferring to serve on a jury rather than fight the battle for public education, I returned to my seat. I told Stephanie that I had been excluded from the pool because the courtroom was across the street. She wished me luck addressing the issue before she left as part of the next call.
When my name was not listed in two additional calls for jury pools assigned to courtrooms in the main building (the protocol appeared to be to progress up the juror numbers without going back to include previously excluded jurors), I began to worry. By lunchtime my patience was exhausted. We were all excused for an on-your-own lunch break. I quietly simmered at the irony of being determined to be unable to cross the street in a group of jury pool members while no staff member even offered simple directions, much less an escort, to the front door of the building. I left the courthouse, grabbed a sandwich at a deli down the street, and returned prepared to resolve the issue respectfully but firmly.
Before we gathered again after lunch, I visited the office of the jury commissioner to register my complaint and see if I could speak to somebody with the authority to remedy the situation. An administrative assistant in the office of the jury commissioner greeted me. I briefly recounted my experience and asked to speak with the jury commissioner. She said the commissioner was out of the office for the afternoon but took me to Lisa Dungee, a supervisor in the jury commissioner's office.
I began by saying I appreciated the intention that had motivated the staff member's decision to exclude me from assignments in courtrooms across the street, but I also told her that I had indicated that such an accommodation would not be necessary. I pointed out that I had crossed several streets en route to the courthouse for jury service earlier that day, and I mentioned that I crossed these same streets every day to reach my place of employment. I told her that my job required me to travel extensively and independently throughout the nation, and I reviewed my educational background. I said that, considering the dearth of qualified jurors in Baltimore, excluding me seemed a waste of a qualified--and for that matter fairly eager--juror candidate. I explained that I was perfectly willing to be excluded from selection for a particular jury based on any number of legitimate factors that either the judge or the attorneys might identify, but I was not willing to discard a perfectly good day without being given the chance to be fairly considered for this important civic duty.
To her credit Ms. Dungee was apologetic and understanding. She agreed that the staff member should have honored my request to have no restrictions placed on my availability for jury pool assignments, and she attributed the poor judgment of the staff member to the fact that extra, untrained staff were required to help process the day's larger-than-normal jury pool. I replied, perhaps a little wryly, that I did not think much training was required to teach employees that they should honor the decisions and statements of competent blind adults. Laughing, Ms. Dungee conceded that I had a point. She then told me that several more calls for jurors were scheduled for after lunch, and she promised to see that I was immediately assigned to one of these.
Within a few minutes of reconvening, I was called to be part of a twenty-person supplemental pool that a judge--in the building I had been in all along--requested be sent to her courtroom, since she expected to exhaust her original pool before a panel was seated. We trooped upstairs to courtroom 600 and, after sitting for about half an hour, returned to the jury holding room because we had not been needed after all. An hour later we were excused for the day with the gratitude of the Maryland Circuit Court for the City of Baltimore.
Needless to say, my first experience with jury service was bitterly disappointing. If I am called again--and I am assured that, once you are in Baltimore's system, you will almost certainly be called every year—I hope that I am given a real opportunity to serve. Stephanie returned to the jury holding room and told me that she had been excused from service by Judge Pearson on what was going to be a fairly lengthy murder trial. While it would not have been convenient for me to be absent from work for an extended trial, I would have preferred to be legitimately excused for professional reasons rather than excluded from consideration by a clerk who had unilaterally decided that I was not equal to crossing the street. In this instance not even our jury nondiscrimination legislation had a chance to be tested. My opportunity to perform my civic duty was thwarted by the simple but profound ignorance about blindness of much of our society. We still have much to do to educate the general public, but perhaps my one-person campaign will make a difference for future potential blind jurors summoned to service. In time we will reach a verdict on the effectiveness of our public education campaign. We will make the case for our competence as blind people one experience, one anecdote at a time.