I tried to remain zen, sitting there Monday at the Lorain County Justice Center, barred from leaving.
I don’t have a problem with jury duty but I do have a problem with the way the system is rigged. Waiting at the courthouse, I listened to the murmur of the 30-odd potential jurors, many chatting about what they’d have to do to make ends meet — pulling unpaid overtime at work, losing vacation days, paying a sitter, or just going without hourly wages.
The court pays $10 for morning duty and $25 if jury duty stretches into the afternoon. Neither is on par with Ohio’s $8.10 per hour minimum wage. While it’s “your civic duty” to serve on a jury, it’s an odd form of press gang labor that restricts the personal freedoms of a random group to balance the scales of justice.
Court staff were apologetic about the whole thing but firm. “We realize that it’s not something you want to do,” one jury administrator told the waiting pool in a pleasant voice.
I did not spend the bulk of my admittedly short time in courthouse limbo thinking of ways to evade my duty. Instead, I jotted on my trusty reporter’s pad, trying to brainstorm alternative systems to round up more willing juries, then slowly but surely pegging each model’s gaping flaws:
• We could privatize juries, allowing corporations to hire potential jurors and let the Randian free hand of the invisible market reign. You only need to look as far as for-profit prisons and charter schools to spot why this is a bad idea.
• We could require jury duty in return for unemployment benefits. The problem is that we don’t attach strings to government services in America. Imagine a situation where firefighters rolled up to your burning home and forced you to sign a jury duty contract before unraveling the hoses.
• We could incentivize potential jurors by paying a living wage for volunteers.
This presents a two-pronged problem: First, it would cost taxpayers a lot more money to run the already cash-strapped justice system. Second, the people who most want to serve on a jury are the ones who probably shouldn’t, in much the same way that those most eager to run for high offices are those who likely should be kept from power.
There’s no simple solution, so the press gang method it is.
In my case, I got lucky.
On Lorain County Court of Common Pleas judge Christopher Rothgery’s criminal docket for the day were four potential cases. In the first, Jerry Cannon, 30, of Elyria, pleaded guilty to improperly carrying a concealed weapon and handling firearms in a motor vehicle. Two cases involved robbery charges (including one involving an Oberlin woman, which would present a conflict with my job as news editor).
As it turned out, my juror group was awaiting a call to hear the fourth case against seven-time drunk driver Arthur McCall, 39, of Elyria, who after battling charges for two-and-a-half years decided to cop a guilty plea just two hours into the day’s sessions.
And with that, I was free to go.
I should have a T-shirt made that says, “I was called for jury duty and all I got was this crappy column.”