How Jury Duty Almost Turned Me into an Anarchist

Metal detectors, fire evacuations, Stalinist architecture, and ideological grilling, all in one day!


"Jury duty!?!?" the former aide to a certain libertarianish senator wrote me Tuesday, after I had mentioned how I was spending my day. "A very anti-libertarian and statist idea. Compulsory service to the state. I treat jury duty like I treat voting—I show up if I feel like it. And I have not felt like showing up for jury duty once in my life."

I understand this sentiment, and elect not to share it. At least I didn't until around 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon. Unlike certain nihilists around these parts, I relish each and every "I voted" sticker, and instead choose more obscure philosophical hills to die on, such as not registering for the Selective Service and trying hard to avoid workplace drug tests and loyalty oaths. Jury duty is a chance to bond with fellow citizens you might not otherwise meet, peek under the hood of our flawed judicial system, and do our small part to advance the noble democratic ideal of participatory justice.

Or so we tell ourselves. In fact, within the space of nine of the longest hours in living memory, I went from bushy-tailed civic enthusiast to eyes-glazed quasi-anarchist, ready to write "Uber, except for jury duty" over and over again on Twitter, like some kind of Buzzfeed Bart Simpson. The following timeline (with some proximate time-stamps and quotes, as I had not been planning on documenting the experience), illustrates the deterioration of an ideal.

8:04 AM: "Have fun doing your civic duty!" the wife says encouragingly, as I leave the usual child-preparation chores to her. As a recently naturalized citizen, she is even more gee-willikers about this stuff than I am. Our main two points of drama for the day: Will I be released in time to see my 6-year-old's 5 o'clock theater performance of Willie Wonka Kids? And at the ripe middle age of 46, will my jury-duty service finally result in me being, um, selected for a jury?

8:22 AM: After naively trying the locked doors at the handsome and historic Brooklyn Borough Hall, where the county courthouse used to reside, I trudge across the pockmarked, trash-strewn Cadman Plaza to a grisly slab of late-'50s architecture so brutalist that even the City of New York has a hard time keeping a straight face while describing it:

The new building was considered, at the time, to be a major addition to the Civic Center….This courthouse, along with the Brooklyn Family Courthouse, represents the 1950s Modernistic plans to transform the Brooklyn Civic Center.


Brook-lyn! Brook-lyn! ||| Matt Welch
Matt Welch

You may have heard a word or two about the gentrification of Brooklyn. Across the street from Cadman Plaza begins the fashionable and high-priced Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, with its Montague Street of "Tangled Up in Blue" (and Jackie Robinson) fame. On the other side are about a dozen cranes busily constructing luxury high rises and associated retail. Even the Fulton Street Mall, long considered to be a bit frazzled around the edges, is smartening up.

The exception to this rule is this thick, gray rectangular scar dominated by government. Despite the enviable setting just walking distance from the Brooklyn Bridge, and the usually cheering presence of farmer's markets and booksellers and flower beds, Cadman Plaza is a urine-scented dump that has the biggest sidewalk-potholes this side of Bucharest.

Speaking of communism, I spend the next 10 minutes in a metal-detector line, emptying pockets, rifling off belts, and exchanging gallows humor with my fellow citizens. Little did I know it would be the most pleasant of my three such experiences that day.

8:45 AM: In order to be prepped for that day's jury pool, my 120 or so fellow citizens have to check the accuracy of the information on our terse summonses, detach two perforated bits, fill out an additional elementary school-style questionnaire containing a handful of queries (date of birth, race, employment status), hand the results in, and listen to some orientation information (including the fateful phrase, "This will be a day to remember."). Naturally, this all takes TWO HOURS.

Part of the lag time comes from the admittedly entertaining orientation officer enunciating each basic instruction (such as, "circle the numbers containing the last two digits of the year you were born") VERY. SLOWLY. SO. THAT. EVERY. ONE. CAN. UNDER. STAND. In fact he does this twice each time, just to make sure. And, as he predicts in a series of sardonic asides, such repeated emphases fail to prevent swaths of the audience from not understanding. The Chinese-born housewife and new mother sitting next to me asked me follow-ups on about 70 percent of the instructions.

But what about me actually serving on a jury, and making it in time for Willy Wonka? Well, there's good news and bad news. Each of us, it seems, will be selected at least for consideration on a particular jury, and depending on that might participate in a trial or get dispatched at the end of the day. BUT. EVERYBODY—I. REPEAT, EVERY. BODY—WILL. STAY. HERE. UNTIL. 5. O'CLOCK. Not 4:30, not 4:40—5 o'clock. Only then will we get our certificate and be free to not do this for another four years.

(In a moment both hilarious and disturbing, the orientation officer then tells us we are forbidden by law to talk about our jury experience on social media, and then he proceeds to read tweets from people in the room, including a guy who wrote something along the lines of "Ain't NO WAY I'm staying here until fucking 5 o'clock!!")

10:55 AM: "Matthew Welch, please come to the jury empaneling room." Huzzah!

11:05 AM: As I am apparently forbidden by law to talk about this case on social media, I will be vague. It is, to my chagrin, a civil trial, not a criminal one, involving the category of incident one might see advertised in a subway car. Twelve of us from the original room of 120 are brought into a courtroom in front of three lawyers—one plaintiff, two defense, representing different defendants—as they attempt to find one last mutually agreeable member of an already-selected jury, plus two alternates. I knew that my chances of serving on this case were approaching nil; I just didn't know what this would have to do with my television career, or Walter Olson.

11:40 AM: After some cross-examination of a group of three potential jurors (sample question: "Would you be comfortable in approving what might seem like a particularly LARGE settlement, if that's where the evidence of the case happens to take you?"), the lawyers select two. There was only one slot left. Five of us—an online poker marketer, a housewife, a millennial music producer, a reform Rabbi in training, and me—are shuttled to the front row for our disqualifying questions. The plaintiff's advocate fixes his eyes upon me.

Lawyer: You know, you look awfully familiar.

Me: I do a lot of cable TV news; you might have seen me there?

L: Where?

M: Well, I co-hosted a show on Fox Business Network for 13 months called "The Independents," and I'm on MSNBC a lot.

L: Fox News, huh? You know, (at this both defense counsel start audibly sighing and thinking about objecting) I get the impression that Fox News HATES people like me.

M: (Not understanding at first what he means, and choosing my words carefully.) Well, the show was called "The Independents" for a reason. Meaning, its politics and attitudes were largely independent from those you normally see represented on cable TV, right or left.

L: So, given your background and knowledge of the legal system, do you have strong opinions about there being too many tort lawyers getting big settlements, things like that?

M: Well, I edit a libertarian magazine whose motto is "Free Minds and Free Markets," and there are definitely many libertarians who find certain high-profile settlements—like the proverbial McDonald's coffee spill—to be absurdly high and inappropriate. And in fact one of our contributing editors has a site called Overlawyered, to give you an idea. But I would also say that within libertarianism there's a broad appreciation that the civil system provides the kind of redress unavailable in places like Western Europe, for example. And at any rate, I don't have strongly held opinions about it; my strongly held opinions are about the criminal justice system.

Thus began a discussion of the media coverage of the coffee-spill case, whether I rent or own, if I live in "one of those nice brownstones" (a small portion of one, is the answer), and so on. I knew it was all over: The housewife got plucked, and the rest of us marched back to the holding pen to wait for the lunch bell.

12:40 PM: Despite the SERIALLY. REPEATED. VOW that we would only be let out for lunch at 1 PM sharp, we're dismissed early into the wilds of downtown Brooklyn. Montague Street, here I come! Maybe there was hope for Willy Wonka yet….

1:40 PM: Remembering that the metal-detector line was long and infuriating, most every juror gets back to the building 20 minutes ahead of time. Still not enough: The procession now snakes out of the building and down the courthouse steps. A security cop hears some of us grumble and waves us around to an apparently secret entrance on the side of the building. The diverted jurors quickly overwhelm that entrance, too, with the gallows humor now coming (mostly humor-free) from the guards and courthouse employees. Process takes more than 20 minutes.

2:30 PM: Fire alarm begins to ring, loudly. Despite the presence of a seemingly infinite number of law enforcement-related personnel and other authorities, no one gives instructions to the jurors—stuck as they are in a room with only one narrow exit—for nearly five minutes.

2:35 PM: We are shoveled, very slowly, into a single-file evacuation line. As we exit the juror pen, we see firemen with axes walk by, and visible white smoke.

2:40 PM: It becomes clear, standing in front of this Stalinist palace, that evacuation will take at least one hour, that no authority will have any useful information during the duration, and that the chances of any us non-selected jurors being somehow chosen between now and 5 o'clock were precisely zero. So a day full of waiting becomes an afternoon of waiting for a 100 percent pointless reason: to be handed a certificate codifying what both you and the state of New York already know.

Morale begins to sag. For reasons that are unclear, cops manhandle a couple of crazy-looking dudes on the courthouse steps, and drag them away.

4:00 PM:

And now they're making me go through the metal detectors a third time. THIS IS HOW YOU MAKE ANARCHISTS. pic.twitter.com/uldVwFNdeM

— Matt Welch (@MattWelch) May 12, 2015

The metal-detector line, as you can well imagine, is so massive that cops have to manage it 25 at a time, people without bags first, and so on. One of my fellow jurors jockeys with me to be last in line, figuring that if it goes for long enough we'll reach the 5 o'clock hour without getting through. No such luck: By 4:20, we're all back in, gasping and coughing at the acrid smell in the hallways.

4:29 PM: The courthouse clerk takes to the intercom, letting us know that—sure enough!—we of course are done for the day. It's all over now, except for the handing out of the I-served documentation. Which is done…in alphabetical order.

4:40 PM: They finally get to the Ws.

The good news? It only took one day out of my life, and I got to make the curtain-raising for Willy Wonka. The bad news? I might just have been transformed into the anti-jury-duty cynic of the opening paragraph.

When you reflect on it for a moment, most of the civic feel-good aspect of jury duty comes from the camaraderie of your fellow citizens, who are trying gamely to make the best of an absurdly planned situation. It really doesn't have to be this way: Reason columnist Greg Beato, among countless others, has proposed more consumer-friendly solutions.

To realize the scope of dysfunctionality both of the existing system and the mentality that still believes reform can happen from within, consider this: In the shoddy, VCR-style orientation video we were shown in the morning, the chief justice of the New York Supreme Court bragged that the current jury-duty system is actually the product of a historic round of customer-friendly reforms. If my day was utterly pointless and infuriating, imagine the poor saps who were doing this 10 years ago! Like Cadman Plaza itself, this is the best that governing minds, after rounds and rounds of discussion and exertion, can come up with.

Conclusion: Anarchy is looking better by the day.