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What to Expect When You’ve been Summoned to Jury Duty

ST. JOHN'S, NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 23, 2017. Seats of the jury box in courtroom number 1 at the Supreme Court, taken on september 23, 2017 in St. John's .

Along with voting and complaining, jury duty is one of the basics of a democratic society. The principle that if you’re accused of a crime you can only be judged by your peers—that is, your fellow citizens who take time out of their regular lives to serve—is one of those aspects of modern life that is pretty inspiring even if the actual process is kind of a huge pain in the butt.

The strangest thing about jury duty is that it’s a 100% non-voluntary activity that everyone pretends is voluntary. If you don’t show up you’re in huge trouble, but you will be thanked endlessly for showing up, and everyone treats you with serious kindness and respect.

If you’ve never been summoned to jury duty before, getting that notice in the mail might be exciting or dreadful, and you might not be sure what to expect. Having just dealt with jury duty myself, I thought I’d chronicle the experience and offer a few bits of advice to make your experience as positive as possible when your entire life has just been disrupted in just about every possible way.

BTW, there are no photos accompanying this article because you’re not allowed to photograph anything inside the courthouse without permission.

The Basics

You live in Hudson County, so as a petit juror you’ll be headed to the Superior Court at 595 Newark Street in Jersey City. It’s easy enough to get to; you can either hop on the PATH to Journal Square and walk about 10-15 minutes from there, hop on the 87 bus which will take you to about 2 blocks away, or you can walk. Yes, walk—or bike. It’s about a 30-45 minute walk and while some of the sidewalks are a bit sketchy, this is entirely doable in decent weather and is actually the fastest and simplest way of getting there.

You can, of course, also drive—but I wouldn’t recommend it. Traffic is snarled around the courthouse, and parking is tough and expensive. Getting a ride from someone will work, of course, but keep that traffic in mind—even if the major roads are moving well, you will stop dead about three blocks away. Also, the court will issue you a Zone 2 parking permit if you ask, but you’re responsible for reading the parking signs and avoiding tickets—they won’t reimburse you—and finding a spot is nearly impossible. Plus, you won’t be guaranteed a chance to feed a meter.

A few things to keep in mind:

Get There Early. You have to go through security before getting into the courthouse, and while they run this pretty efficiently, it takes about 10-15 minutes to get through (assuming you don’t have, say, a hunting knife in your bookbag ot something). It’s totally okay if you don’t get to check in by 8:30 as specified, however—it takes them at least until about 9AM before all the jurors are checked in, so if you squeak in late you’re fine.

Another reason to get there early is work space. If you intend to use your laptop or do other work while at jury duty, you need to know that while tables and cubicle-style workspaces are available, they’re limited. If you want to avoid working on your lap or sitting on the floor, getting there early is key. Jury groups get called all the time, so the room empties out—but then fills up again. Pro tip: There’s an elevator lobby with some comfy chairs on the 6th floor.

Bring Cash. All the vending machines are cash-only, and many of the businesses around the courthouse have minimum charges for credit cards—so buying something small like a bottle of water or something can be a pain. Bringing a little cash will make things easier.

There’s a Library. If you want a book just to keep yourself occupied, keep in mind there is a small library of books in the jury room, so if you want to keep your bag light and avoid juggling multiple possessions, you could opt to just pick something up right in the room. On the dark side of entertainment, they have TVs on—but they only show HGTV. All day.

You Can Leave. You are allowed to leave the jury room briefly, for coffee runs, smoke breaks, or just for some fresh air. You have to sign out, and you’re advised not to spend too much time away from the jury room. But you can totally stretch your legs.

It’s Crowded. There will likely be a lot of people reporting for jury duty. You won’t get a ton of personal space. It’s not like it’s uncomfortable or anything—but it’s crowded, so be prepared to be mashed in a bit.

The WiFi is Terrible. No joke—there is free WiFi in the jury room, and it is like going back in time to the age of dial-up modems. Sure, in a pinch it’ll work to check email real quick, but I wouldn’t advise relying on it, especially if you need to get work done while you’re there.

You Get Paid. Sure, you don’t get paid much, but you will get $5/day for your troubles for the first 3 days—and if you serve beyond that, it jumps to $40.

The Experience

People come to jury duty with a variety of attitudes. Some folks are cheerful and even eager to do their civic duty, some folks are cranky and annoyed. Some come determined to argue with the courthouse workers, which is a huge mistake because trust me when I say that the folks in the jury room have dealt with every single kind of person and heard every single excuse and insult over the years and they don’t have a high tolerance for complaints. Which isn’t to say they won’t help you if they can—but attitude plays a huge role in how they respond to you.

The best mental attitude is to remind yourself that this is a marathon. You’ll be called for two days, and while you might not have to serve both days (or all of both days) you should probably assume you will. Most importantly, jury duty is a lot of waiting. You will sit in that room for hours. So, a few pieces of advice:

  • Bring activities. Jury Duty is like flying to Hawaii—it’s a long haul. Don’t be one of those people who sits and stares for hours because they didn’t bring anything to do. That said, if you’re going to rely on a device for entertainment, keep that bad WiFi in mind.
  • The food choices around the courthouse aren’t too inspiring, or fancy. There’s plenty of fast food options (and you don’t get a ton of time for lunch anyway) and diner-style places, and of course you can also bring your lunch if you want. Just don’t expect a leisurely lunch—and don’t expect anyone to buy your lunch. That only happens if you get on a jury that lasts for a long time. Pro tip: There’s a cafeteria on the ground floor of the courthouse. It’s not inspiring, but if the weather’s bad it’s a fine way to stay inside.
  • Grab a seat. The volume of jurors is different day-to-day but there’s always the chance that the room will be packed, and if you get in late or take your time getting situated you may end up standing, which can make a long day seem even longer.

It’s good to keep in mind that jury duty is an essential part of our society. If you were charged with a crime or sued by someone, it’s people just like yourself who dedicate their time—however unwillingly—to passing judgment and figuring out what’s fair. You might not like it or enjoy it, but it’s an overall good and well worth sucking it up.

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Jeffrey Somers

Staff Writer • Jeff Somers (jeffreysomers.com) is the author of 9 novels including We Are Not Good People (wearenotgoodpeople.com) and the publisher of The Inner Swine (innerswine.com). Jeff may be reach at [email protected] . Follow him on Twitter at @jeffreysomers .

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