Monday, August 27, 2012

One Angry Man

I “served” on a jury in the summer of 2007. It was just one day. The parties settled, so my service amounted to sitting in a room for several hours next to a bunch of other frustrated jurors-to-be. Naturally, I walked out of that courthouse with my bosom popping, as I always do after performing sacred civic duties.

Cut to a few months ago: I received a notice in the mail saying that if I haven’t served on a jury in the last six years, I am eligible to regress back into the jury pool.
I wrote back, giving my address at the time of service and the year in which I served (a little less than four years ago). In return I received a summons for jury duty. Apparently, my name, my address at the time of service, and my year of service wasn’t enough to help them narrow things down. Never count on a bureaucrat to connect any dots (or to even have a pen to do the dot-connecting).
The juror website for my state offers no useful info. for contacting someone to explain any of this, because if it provided this function, people would use it to clear up the kinds of misunderstandings that lead to their being called to serve on juries when they aren’t actually eligible to serve on them. This is not an accident.
So I go to the Manhattan courthouse to explain this. I brought my new summons, along with my original summons from 2007, the jury questionnaire I filled out in 2007, and a paystub from 2007 showing my old address. This would be enough documentation to get a home mortgage loan, a lease on a pre-owned hovercraft, and an orphan from Darfur, so I figured it would be more than enough to verify that I sat in a jury room for one day in 2007.
When I showed the woman at the courthouse my paperwork, she acted like I’d handed her a box of empty Triscuits. “No, you have to have your original certificate of service.” Evidently every document related to said service is irrelevant. I started to ask if she could just check with Queens (the county I served in), but she interjected with “We have no way of checking the records in Queens.”
Jury duty is spoken of as this sacred function, and in some cases, the decisions made by juries are a matter of life and death. Yet the databases of New York’s five boroughs lack the ability to communicate with each other about the folks performing this sacred duty. And it seems Lady Justice is also blind to fax machines.
She gave me the number to call in Queens. I got someone on the line and gave my name, my old address, and the date on which I served. Within seconds, the woman in Queens was able to verify that I had served. I then asked how I could obtain a new certificate of service to satisfy the people in Manhattan. She said I could either go all the way out to the Queens courthouse (Jamaica, Queens, which is only slightly closer than Jamaica the island), or they could mail it to my old address. I told her I didn’t live there anymore. She said they could only mail it to the old address. I tried to ask if she could somehow communicate to Manhattan that Queens had a record of my service. She said my only option was to trek all the way out to the Queens courthouse to get a copy of the record. And of course, they don’t have evening hours. Why make things at all workable for the people who are employed and pay the taxes that keep courthouses operational in the first place?
So after clearing it with my boss, I go all the way out to the Jamaica Queens courthouse. It takes about an hour to get there. After going through security, I ask the guy where to go to obtain records. He sends me to a spot on the other side of the courthouse. When I get there, the signs I see give me a hunch that I’m in the wrong place. While on line I get on my cell and call the Queens helpline to make sure I’m in the right place. They tell me to go to the jury room for records. I head to the jury room. There are a handful of jurors-to-be sitting around (I’m guessing everyone was at lunch), but not a single official in sight. Literally not even one.
I walk back out and try to speak to a different security guy. He cuts me off and gives me another room number. I go upstairs to this new room; it’s marked as the room for jurors with questions. Not exactly what I was asking for, but at least we’re getting warmer.
In this room there was a woman leaning against the counter. She asked if she could help. As I started to explain why I was there, she cut me off, pointed to a bench and said, “Someone will be with you.” Before I could give any details, she just commanded me to sit…like I was a trouble dog on a troubled dog reality show. So I sat on this bench. NO ONE ELSE WAS WAITING. No one. Just me. And there were probably 5 or 6 courthouse workers behind the desk chit-chatting (I learned that one of them was trying to lose weight). I sat there while the people behind the desk, who according to the signs, are there to answer questions, appeared to do nothing. They certainly weren’t answering any questions (except those related to their co-worker's diet strategy).
Finally a guy appears and offers to help. I explain my situation, and am again told to go to the jury room. I retreat back down the stairs and trudge back to the jury room. Once again, not a single official in sight. I started walking around in circles, thinking I must be missing something. After making a few laps around the mostly empty room, I find a little nook in the corner with an open door. I see two guys inside. I ask if they can get my records. One of them says YES HE CAN. DING! DING! DING!
A couple questions: Why weren’t there lots of signs identifying this as the records room? Why didn’t anyone on the phone or in person tell me to look for this room within the jury room? I can tell you its location wasn’t obvious.
The guy in this room was actually helpful, and I managed to get two copies of my certificate of service.
I went all the way back to the Manhattan courthouse (another hour-plus journey). I dealt with the same woman as before. I handed her my certificate. She adopted a nagging tone and lobbed this at me: “Come next August, you’ll be eligible again.”
Not: “Hey thanks for being patient with our embarrassingly outdated process.”
Not: “Hey thanks for being honest enough to comply.”
Not: “Hey thanks for paying the skyhigh taxes that allow me and my Kafka-villain colleagues to buy the paperwork we use to eat up your time.”
Nope, just another rap on the knuckles as I walked out the door. And we’re supposed to trust this system to make a sound judgment about whom to execute?

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