The View from the Jury Box

In October, I received my first-ever summons for jury duty, and I’ll confess I was somewhat giddy over the prospect of serving on a jury. Maybe it’s related to my academic interests in citizenship rights and obligations, or maybe it’s just that I’m often curious about so many things. I’m certainly not a legal junkie – by which I mean that I’m not one of those people who adores courtroom drama and has watched such shows on television for years. (I’ve seen Legally Blonde and Runaway Jury, but I’ve never seen Twelve Angry Men, and I’ve maybe endured 1 or 2 episodes of Law and Order because I don’t care much for it. The most recent court-related drama I’ve seen – I believe – is A Few Good Men.)

It’s possible that my interests piqued after reading Linda Kerber’s No Constitutional Right to be Ladies, which has a wonderful section on women and the obligations of jury service. It was only in 1898 that women began to be permitted to serve on juries, for example (Kerber, 136). In many ways, women’s jury service is a new thing.

I was the final juror selected to a civil case that was heard on Monday and Tuesday of this week. (There were two alternates selected after me.) Now that it’s all over, I can speak freely about the case, in which the plaintiff (a home builder) was suing a couple over breach of contract. A couple of years ago, the defendants had entered into a contract to have a home built, failed to show at closing, lost their financing, and the builder sold the house at a loss (compared to final contract price, once all the customization went into it) to another family. The builder was seeking the difference between the final sales price and the contract price the defendants would have been obligated to pay.

My initial thoughts were “Breach of contract? Hm, that won’t be very interesting,” (as compared to the sort of thing you might see on TV). Yet, by the time I left the courthouse after jury deliberations the following day, not only had it been a very interesting case, but it had also been a very educational experience. While I know it’s more stylish (or whatever) to complain about jury duty and try to get out from it, I found the experience a welcome interruption into my end-of-grad-school life.

There were many things that made the process and case interesting, but perhaps the most intriguing element (to me, personally) was the opportunity to see a case in which the plaintiff had a lawyer and the defendants represented themselves. During voir dire, when the jury selection begins through questioning the jury pool, we were asked whether the fact that one party had a lawyer and one did not would bias us. I had no problem at all with that. In fact, at one point during opening arguments, I recall thinking that this type of case seemed so very American to me: the right to trial by jury of your peers, and even the right to represent yourself in court.

Over the course of the trial, I began to see just how much of an academic I’ve become in so many ways. Trials are all about making arguments and presenting evidence to support those arguments concretely. In this sense, they’re very much like what I ask my students to do when they have a paper assignment: like a lawyer, my students have always had to form an argument and marshal evidence to support their assertions. Those who do so competently get good grades, but when evidence is lacking or when an argument is incomplete, well, that’s when you see the lower end of the grading spectrum.

The defendants seem, in many ways, like wonderful people who simply made several mistakes in the process of building a home. They knew very little about the courtroom process – not even realizing, for example, the need to label their exhibits (which I thought would be fairly common knowledge, even with my limited courtroom-in-the-media knowledge). The judge was kind and patient, telling us later that when one party does not have legal representation, remaining fair and unbiased as a judge can be even trickier: a judge cannot provide legal advice to that party, for example, but cannot let that party be exempt from courtroom rules, either. I thought the judge in this case was excellent, patiently explaining what they could and could not do, explaining the plaintiff’s attorney’s objections in many instances, and so on.

In the end, it all came down to evidence. And in the end, the defendants failed to bring evidence that fit what needed to be argued. The plaintiff used the contract to demonstrate the terms of the contract and then testimony to demonstrate that the terms went unmet when the defendants failed to show for closing. In contrast, the defendants relied on building an argument that they could never fully substantiate, trying to assert that both the home building process had exceeded the contracted term length and that the length of time resulted from problems with subcontractors and the builder. (To prove that, however, one would need to bring in subcontractors to back up an assertion that the builder was causing delays on the house.)

In the end, from where I sat in the jury box, with my own expertise in developing and sustaining arguments, the case came down to one well-founded argument with good supporting evidence (the plaintiff) and one well-intentioned argument that often wound up going down tangents unrelated to the primary argument – and missing evidence. If these were two students each independently writing their papers, the plaintiff’s side would have been a high B or A level paper, while the defendants would be the student who was clearly struggling to understand the larger concepts and how to fit them together.

In the end, the jury found for the plaintiff, although believe me, we were not numb to the fact that the verdict would have a major financial impact on the defendants. From an emotional standpoint, we felt bad for them – but the evidence was clear that there had been breach of contract. At the end of the day, that was what we had been asked to decide: whether or not there had been breach of the contract terms.

I have great respect for those who chose to represent themselves for whatever reason, and I have much appreciation for the judge and the staff at the courthouse, all of whom were wonderful and helpful throughout my jury experience. It was a wonderful learning experience and a great chance to fulfill my civic obligations. Now more than ever, I have an appreciation for the precision that can accompany law and legal practice (although there are exceptions to this). Also, it was really great to hear some well-formed arguments – and personally interesting to see how I spent so much time analyzing all of the arguments, whether they had solid foundation or not.

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2 thoughts on “The View from the Jury Box

  1. Maybe people who already effed up on their home should have had less confidence about representing themselves in court? (Or maybe it was a calculated risk if they knew their case was weak & didn’t want to have to pay a lawyer to lose the case?)

    My husband was on a criminal case last summer, and although it took a full week plus, he found it to be an edifying exercise in citizenship. (They acquitted the defendant of the major charge against him.)

  2. I agree with you – if I were them, I wouldn’t have that confidence for that, but I also considered whether they didn’t want to pay a lawyer. (For the amount of money involved, though, they should have reconsidered!)

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