PARTICIPATING IN THE NJ JUSTICE SYSTEM by Ellen Donker
My first time serving in virtual court.
Back in December, I received a green postcard in the mail. It was the kind with the black bar running across the top stating, “OFFICIAL JUROR SUMMONS.” Does anyone ever smile when they read those words? The card said I was to start petit jury on January 3; my term of service was for one week or one trial. Happy New Year to you, too.
I’ve served on jury duty several times over the years, but the most memorable time was in September 1999. The only reason I remember the date is that I started my service about two hours after I had an ultrasound telling me I was six weeks pregnant with triplets. Talk about having your world rocked.
In shock, I drove from my doctor’s office to the Newark courthouse. Honestly, it was probably better than going into my small office and pretending everything was normal. My pregnancy was considered high risk both to me and the babies I was carrying. If I had gone to work I might’ve alternated between sobbing and staring blankly at the ceiling. Instead I went to jury duty and cried my eyes out in the anonymity of the courthouse lunchroom.
Thankfully, my other tours of duty began with less drama. In fact, this time was the easiest yet as the first day of court was held remotely via Zoom. I count that as a nice alternative to driving to the Newark courthouse. Too bad it took a pandemic to bring innovation to the court system.
When January 3 dawned, I positioned myself to be ready for my 9 o’clock Zoom session. The only problem was I couldn’t find the email with the login instructions. A quick stab of terror in my chest told me I was off to a bad start. I tried searching by date and by keywords and then isolating my flagged emails. Then I searched on my phone and there it was. Panic averted. As an aside, I’d like someone in the know to tell me how one device can find an email and not the other.
When I logged in at the appointed time, I, along with 86 other people, waited for the jury manager to appear. Twenty minutes later, she came on and reminded us about the importance of jury service. Yes, she knew that it is inconvenient and slow, but encouraged us to make the best of it. She even asked people to describe the positive aspects of jury service which boiled down to it being rewarding, an opportunity to learn about the law and a chance to meet new people. Our jury manager ended with a quote, saying the difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude. I liked this woman and gave her a mental A+ for making me feel a little better about showing up.
After watching a few orientation videos and being told not to wear a hat or eat while on camera, we were released for the day as the court wasn’t ready for jury selection. We were to appear the next day at the same link and a slightly different time.
On day two, after a very long roll call, where people fumbled with unmuting themselves to say “Here!” and a few had problems with their cameras, the court staff showed us a video about court proceedings and the voir dire process. By video we were introduced to the judge, the case at hand and the attorneys. Then began the jury selection and hours of waiting. We had to stay alert and visible on camera because every ten minutes or so, the court representative called the name of someone who would be moved to sidebar next. In virtual court, that means a breakout room.
A few minutes after our lunch break, the court staff told us the jury had been selected and just like that we had fulfilled our civic duty, at least for the next three years.
The funny thing is, my children are now old enough to get called for jury duty. I guess their stint in 1999 doesn’t count.