David Bernthal/Off the Bench: The judicial system from a new point of view

David Bernthal/Off the Bench: The judicial system from a new point of view

One of my early columns dealt with the subject of jury service. I made the assertion that jury duty was an honor. Shortly thereafterm I received a notice from the office of Katie Blakeman, circuit clerk of Champaign County. It turned out to be the first step in the process of conferring the honor of jury service upon me.

After completing the questionnaire that had been sent to me, I contacted the jury commissioner to request that I be scheduled for duty in the summer. The request was met with courtesy and subsequently granted. Sure enough, as May arrived, I received my summons to report June 19, 2017.

When the appointed day arrived I reported to the Champaign County Courthouse. As we checked in we were given a pamphlet describing some fundamentals of the legal system as well as the trial process. I hope jurors read this because it is well-written and informative.

By arriving a little early I was able to observe my fellow jurors as they entered the room. While no one appeared resentful, there was a decided lack of enthusiasm. Some people seemed nervous and unsure of what was ahead. I heard one juror ask another how he was doing. The response was "better if I wasn't here." Frankly, I did not consider that to be an unusual reply. After all, the court is requiring those summoned to give up their normal activities and be ready to perform a challenging but important task.

Since the customary orientation video was being updated, we were welcomed in person by Judge Randy Rosenbaum. He put us at ease with some humor, explained important aspects of our duties and repeatedly thanked us. Having addressed jurors many times as a judge it was very interesting to be on the receiving end. While I understand the value of a video orientation, I think we all appreciated the fact that a judge greeted us in person on behalf of the court.

While the orientation remarks touched upon several important topics, I think some are worth repeating here. The process of selecting the jury, called Voir Dire, was described so that we would not be caught by surprise if we were among those randomly selected to go to a courtroom. The judge informed us that prospective jurors would be called into the jury box and then questioned by the judge and lawyers. He assured us that we were not being put on trial nor did the questioners wish to make us uncomfortable by prying into our personal experiences. However, he did emphasize the importance of selecting an impartial jury and noted that while a particular person might be impartial for one case that same person might have knowledge regarding a second case or a witness in that case such that the person could not be impartial in that case. I am reminded of the story of the lawyer who was intensely questioning a prospective juror in what seemed to be a relentless effort to show she could not be impartial. When the lady did not back down, the frustrated lawyer finally exclaimed "Come on Mom, wouldn't you favor my side a little?"

For those selected there was an admonition to avoid independent investigation. In my presentations I used to ask the jurors, "If you want to know something about a particular person, place or event where do you look for the answer?" Invariably the answer would be "Google it!" "Of course" I would answer "but don't Google it until the trial is over." Decisions must be made on the basis of the evidence presented in the courtroom.

By mid-morning we were informed that there would be no trials requiring jurors that day. Hopefully, none of us felt our time had been wasted. Undoubtedly, there were cases set for trial that day. My experience taught me that there is nothing like the presence of jurors waiting to go to work that motivates litigants to resolve cases. It is simply a matter of agree on a resolution or go to trial. Perhaps more cases were resolved by agreement than could have been tried that day.

In order to minimize the risk of wasted trips to the courthouse the court takes advantage of technology. Each juror was instructed to call the toll-free number or visit the website each evening to receive instructions regarding service the following day. Text and email options are also available. As it turned out, my group was not called back in that week. Nevertheless, it was very interesting to experience the judicial system from this new point of view.

David Bernthal, who lives in Mahomet, is a retired 21-year federal magistrate. He is of counsel with the Webber & Thies PC law firm and serves as senior mediator and arbitrator with ADR Systems. His email is askthejudge1@gmail.com.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion
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