Steinberg: A cog in the justice machine

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“Belts off, jackets off, pockets empty.”

In line at the Daley Center, last Thursday, 8:20 a.m., just another John Q. Citizen arriving early for his 8:30 a.m. summons.

“Belts off, jackets off, pockets empty,” a sheriff’s deputy cries, to no one in particular, like a 19th century vender selling fruit off a cart.

Juggling a cup of coffee, a briefcase, jacket and ID, I slide off my belt and coil it in a gray plastic bin, along with the fistful of change the letter told us to bring for vending machines. While most people to whom I mentioned my pending jury duty expressed sympathy, even pity, my mood is light. Anything that involves enforced idleness, reading and snacks can’t be that bad.

Up to the 17th floor, assigned to groups — I’m Panel 9. Invited to sit in a sea of chairs. I pop a green tea mint, crack David Axelrod’s “Believer” (excellent, filled with trenchant insight and telling details).


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At 9:10 a.m., a video. “Ladies and gentlemen, good morning, my name is Timothy C. Evans . . .”

See, I know Tim. I’ve dealt with him a dozen times. I’m certain they’ll never pick me for a jury. A newspaper columnist married to a lawyer. Never. A couple hours of leisure and they’ll send me on my way.

Ten minutes pass. Panel 3, Panel 5. Panel 7.

About 10:15 a.m., we’re called. Panel 9 escorted to a courtroom, where a judge tells us that the lawyers saw our faces and decided to settle.

I half expect we’ll be dismissed. Instead we begin an odyssey, the Wandering Jury. Led to one courtroom, then another. No one is ready for us. Back to the 17th floor. Finally, 11 a.m. we are escorted to a third courtroom, then told to take lunch. Come back in two and a half hours. I Divvy to the office to show off my bright red JUROR badge.

At 1:30 p.m. we reassemble at a courtroom. Judge Jim Ryan welcomes us affably. We take seats in the jury box and he explains the case. A young woman driving an Acura was rear-ended by another driver on Grand Avenue. Her insurance company paid $4,400 for repairs and a rental car, and now the company wants to collect from the guy who rear-ended her, an unshaven, handsome, vaguely menacing young man in a black V-neck sweater.

For a moment, I wonder if we’ve begun the trial. No, this is “voir dire,” jury selection. We are asked if any of us have been in accidents. Any lost our license? Any have trouble with the idea of an insurance company recovering damages?

“Mr. Steinberg,” one lawyer begins, reading from a form, and I sit up straight, smiling, ready for my moment in the spotlight. Time to be recognized, then dismissed. “Your wife is a lawyer. Will that affect your ability to view the case impartially?”

“Umm, no,” I say.

There is a break. After five minutes, we are told six have been chosen. I’m among them. The other 12 are sent away.

The case takes two hours, start to finish. It consists of lawyers quizzing two witnesses: the woman whose car was hit, and the man who hit her. Nobody questions the facts.

Back in the jury room, I’m elected foreman. So what do people think? Five find him negligent. One just can’t. “It could have happened to anyone,” she says. For 40 minutes we go back and forth. Society demands drivers stop for cars making lefts. If you don’t, you’re negligent. Case closed.

We treat her gently, yet she seems fragile, about to cry, and goes into the bathroom for a long time and doesn’t come out. When she does, I ask if there’s any chance she’ll change her mind. No. I ask the others if there’s any chance we’ll come to her way of thinking. No. I have no interest in browbeating the woman, nor in drawing this out pointlessly. I send a note to the judge that we’re deadlocked. We get certificates and checks for $25 and are out by 5 p.m.

Two lessons. One, you never know what will happen when you go to law. Here I was certain I’d be dismissed and ended up jury foreman. Two, it’s a flawed system, and one person can derail the whole thing. But it works, sort of. Everyone was exceedingly polite, and thanked us for us doing our civic duty. Compared to the bloody chaos in most of the world, our justice system is a gift.

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