Florian M. Ptak: Adjudicated absurdity in Superior Court
There were 105 of us sitting in a drab, stuffy, overcrowded room in the basement of the Superior courthouse building in Pittsfield. We were prospective jurors summoned there by order of the state of Massachusetts to do our civic duty. We were the good citizens, who despite inconvenience, possible financial loss and physical problems, had reported to the premises at 8 a.m. to undergo what could be described as a ludicrous, almost comical affair if it wasn’t so painful.
The day was destined to unfold to reveal yet another intrusion of our government into the lives of its citizenry that was both wasteful and bizarre. In a display of total disregard of people’s valuable time the judicial system exposed itself as the antiquated, 19th century system that refuses to move into the modern age and seemed, almost, to revel in that fact.
The first part of the grueling day was spent sitting in the basement room while the security guard shuffled papers and told us time after time to find a seat because there was a possibility of numerous trials in the district court and also the likelihood of a civil trial. At one point he actually asked us to dispose of gum if we were chewing it. (Was I back in third grade?)
After an hour or so the guard announced that there would be no criminal trials that day but there was a possibility of a civil trial. After another uncomfortable half-hour we were asked to line up two-by-two and march up two flights of stairs to the courtroom. (More visions of my experiences in third grade.)
After all 105 of us were seated, the judge described the pending case and then asked questions such as -- did we know any of the subjects in the trial or did we have any specific reason why we could not serve on a trial he expected would take up to two weeks? There were about 10 to 20 questions. After each of the questions we were to raise our hands if our answers were affirmative. About half of the people raised their hand. I did not raise mine.
He then announced that anyone who had raised his or her hand was to be called forward and questioned in a sidebar. The individuals were to be called by number starting at one -- I had a high number. The first person that went to the sidebar spent about five minutes there. That’s when I realized I was going to be sitting on a very hard bench, staring at the old judge portraits, which lined the walls, for a very long time. We were not allowed to read or talk (or chew gum).
As pure tedium set in, I entertained myself in various ways. I noted that Americans were indeed getting overweight if this jury pool was an indication. I noted that of all the judges’ portraits only one showed his hands. I wondered if they were hiding anything. I watched a sliver of sunshine slowly pass across the courtroom floor. I checked out the women -- some were very attractive -- and so on.
But most of the time I was thinking what a waste of people’s time. There were three defendants, six plaintiffs, six lawyers -- three for each side -- a court clerk, a court stenographer, three security guards, the judge and the prospective jurors. Was this necessary? In this modern age couldn’t the system be streamlined? Did we all have to spend the day supporting this relic of courtrooms past?
Wasn’t it possible for the young woman who I overheard tell the guard that she was a nursing mother who fed her baby every two to three hours to be excused before going up to the sidebar and explaining this to the judge? Couldn’t the obviously mentally challenged young man and his caregiver be excused prior to a sidebar? Couldn’t the individual who I knew was a lawyer be queried about his knowing the judge, other lawyers, the case and so on, be excused before I was asked to sit in the courtroom for hours watching the old judge portraits grow older? Why couldn’t the system describe the case prior to summoning jurors so those that were obviously not able for various reasons be excused and not waste my and all of the others time? Why indeed. Maybe these weren’t viable solutions but there must be a better way to do this, I thought.
After 41Ž2 hours of this legal tomfoolery, I was finally asked to come forward and sit in the jury box. I was the 13th of the 14 jurors to be selected. Thinking that at least my services would be used, I was almost ready to concede that maybe my time had not been wasted. But that was before I noted the youngish lawyer for the plaintiff surreptitiously looking my way. Using what is called a preemptory challenge, she handed a paper to the judge who dismissed me from the jury with no reason, whatsoever, given. I am convinced it was ageism since I am no longer young but I have no proof.
As I walked out into the sunshine on Park Square, hoping I had not gotten a parking ticket or had my car towed, I could not help but wonder just how I had just served as a good citizen. No answer came readily to mind.
By the way -- the jury that was impaneled was dismissed the next day because the two parties in the case agreed to settle. The previous day was a complete waste of everyone’s time.
Florian M. Ptak was a periodicals columnist for The Eagle for 15 years.
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