In late April I received a Minnesota Jury Summons ordering me to appear at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis on May 6th for two weeks of jury duty.
The form advised me that my name “was randomly selected from a list of licensed drivers, state identification card holders and registered voters in [the County].” Each year approximately 30,000 such summonses are issued.
The Summons contained a Qualification Questionnaire that had to be answered and returned to the court within 10 days. In addition to basic personal information, the Questionnaire asked if you were a U.S. citizen, were at least 18 years of age and a resident of Hennepin County, were able to communicate in English, had any physical or mental disability that would affect your ability to serve, had ever been convicted of a felony, had been on jury duty in the State in the past four years and were a judge in the judicial branch.
Although I was eligible for an automatic excuse from such duty for people over 70 years of age, I did not exercise this right. I thought I was fit and able and should fulfill this obligation of citizenship. As a former lawyer who tried some jury cases, I also thought it would be educational and interesting to see the trial process from a different perspective. I thus answered the call for service even though I thought it most unlikely that I would sit on a jury because trial lawyers are reluctant to allow current or former lawyers on a jury due to fear that they would dominate other jurors and use their pre-existing legal knowledge to influence their decision.
On May 6th at 8:15 a.m. I joined 124 other citizens in reporting for duty in the Jury Assembly Room at the Government Center. Our attendance was taken by having the bar codes on our summonses read electronically.
Before we watched a movie describing the jury system in Minnesota and read the State’s Jury Handbook, we were told there were 105 pending cases that might require juries, that we were not to discuss any cases or read or see any media coverage of cases while we served and that we were not to do any independent Internet or other research or investigation regarding such cases. We also were told not to discuss the cases on any social media until they were over.
Around 10:00 a.m. 14 potential jurors were called and escorted upstairs to the courtroom for a case.
Potential Juror in a Civil Case
A half hour later I was included in a panel of 16 for another case, and we were escorted upstairs to the courtroom of Judge Mel Dickstein for a civil case by an interior design company against Bernard Berrian for alleged unpaid fees for work on a condo in downtown Minneapolis.
After brief introductions of the trial lawyers and their clients, the prospective jurors were subjected to voir dire, questioning by the Judge and then by the lawyers to try to determine if any of us had any reasons why we could not be fair and impartial in this case. This process took an hour in the morning and one and a half hours in the afternoon.
One of the judge’s questions was whether we ever had been deposed, i.e., given sworn testimony before trial. I answered “Yes,” and when I said it had lasted for five days, the Judge asked for my reactions to that experience. I said I often was frustrated and had greater sympathy for the many people I had deposed in my legal career and for the clients I had defended in depositions taken by other lawyers.
When trial lawyers question the prospective jurors, in addition to trying to see if there are reasons for disqualifying an individual, they also have other objectives. They want to obtain a sense of what the individuals are like to aid the lawyers’ exercising their preemptory challenges, i.e., dismissing some individuals for no stated reasons. They also try to give prospective jurors a peak at what their case is about and build rapport with the prospective jurors.
One of the attorneys in this case, I thought, failed in these secondary objectives by engaging in very detailed and unnecessary quasi-cross examination of some of the members of the panel. At least it annoyed me. Finally the judge called the lawyers to the bench and undoubtedly told them to speed up the questioning because thereafter the questioning was much shorter and was soon over.
As I sat in the jury box, I wondered why this case had not settled, as most similar cases do. Each side had two lawyers (or one lawyer and a legal assistant) at the counsel tables, thus increasing the costs of litigation for both parties. In this preliminary phase, we were not told how much money was at stake, but I could not believe it was immense.
Only one of the panel was excused for cause; she was responsible for taking care of her elderly mother. The lawyers then exercised their preemptory challenges. I was one of those thus striken.
I, therefore, returned to the Jury Assembly Room until 4:00 p.m. when I was released for the day. Later I was told that 124 of the 125 citizens in the Room that day had been called upstairs as potential jurors.
The next day (May 7th) 86 other citizens and I reported to the Jury Assembly Room at 9:00 a.m. This included some who had been on On-Call status the prior day. We were told that there were 35 potential jury cases on the trial calendar for the day.
Around 10:30 a.m. a group of potential jurors was called for a case. However, the Room’s computer had gone down, and all of us had to write our names on slips of paper, and the requisite number of slips was drawn at random from a bowl. I was not included.
At 11: 45 a.m. those of us still in the Room were released for our lunch break.
Potential Juror in a Criminal Case
After we had returned at 1:30 p.m., I was included in a panel of 35 potential jurors and escorted upstairs to the courtroom of Judge Lyonel Norris for a criminal case. The defendant was an African-American man accused of domestic and sexual abuse, as I recall.
Judge Norris and then the lawyers in the case questioned 21 of us who were in the jury box to try to determine if there were any reasons why we could not be fair and impartial jurors in the case. This process lasted the rest of the afternoon until nearly 5:30 p.m. and most of the next morning (May 8th).
We were asked if we or any members of our families, including close friends, had ever been a victim of sexual or physical abuse or ever been accused of such crimes. I was astounded that 9 of the 21 said that they had. Some of the nine were then questioned about the circumstances at the judge’s bench while a “white noise” machine was turned on so that others in the courtroom could not hear what was said. Others of the 9 provided details involving other members of their families in open court. Afterwards one of the 9 was excused when she said she could not be fair and impartial in this case because of the nature of the criminal charges.
I was also surprised by how many of us answered affirmatively to the question of whether we or any members of our families, including close friends, had ever been accused of a crime, including DUI. Most talked about relatives and friends accused of DUI.
Each of the 21 people in the jury box provided basic personal information. I said that I was a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, that my wife was also retired, that one of our sons lived in the Twin Cities area and was a principal of a gourmet coffee company, that our other son lived in Ecuador and was the C.E.O. of a non-profit environmental group and that I was an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.
In response to specific questions, I disclosed I had been a defendant in two civil cases, both of which had been resolved in my favor; that I had testified as a foundation witness in a federal court criminal case; that in the early 1970’s I had been a pro bono (no fee) lawyer for the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against a group of Minneapolis policemen for a political raid and that we had obtained compensatory and punitive damages against some of the defendants; that although I had never practiced criminal law, I had become interested in international criminal justice and the International Criminal Court as a result of my teaching international human rights at the Law School; and that my wife had been a volunteer coordinator at Minneapolis’ Neighborhood Involvement Program and Chrysalis Women’s Center which had programs for battered women.
After the questioning of the potential jurors was completed, no one else was excused for cause. Again, however, I was striken by the attorneys.
I returned to the Jury Assembly Room and was excused for lunch. When I returned at 1:30 p.m., I was informed that all of the other potential jurors and I were excused from the balance of our jury duty.
This week I received my State compensation for my jury duty $30.00 ($10.00/day) plus $11.34 for mileage.
I was impressed by the operation of the jury system. People in the Jury Assembly Room were attentive to the instructions and information being conveyed and respectful of the court officials and their fellow potential jurors.
In the two courtrooms the judges and trial lawyers were courteous and respectful of one another and of the potential jurors. I was most impressed with the judges’ emphasis of the need to have fair and impartial jurors and by their questioning of us, especially in the criminal case.
I also got to know some of my fellow prospective jurors and was most impressed by all of our ability and willingness to answer in public questions about our personal lives. I certainly believed that all of us were striving to do our best to provide information to the court about our personal circumstances that might affect our ability to be fair and impartial.
 Although I knew or had appeared as an attorney before 19 of the 61 Hennepin County District Judges, I had had no prior experience with Judge Dickstein. Later I did research and discovered that he holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Minnesota and was a former Assistant U.S. District Attorney and a former Associate and Partner attorney in the Minneapolis law office of Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi, with which I had had several cases in my career. Mr. Dickstein was appointed to the bench in 2002 and elected for retention in 2004 and 2010.
 As several other prospective jurors and I stated to the court, we recognized Mr. Berrian as a former professional football player who had played for the Minnesota Vikings football team. After I had been dismissed as a juror in the case, I did some research and discovered that he had his own website.
 I also had no prior experience with Judge Norris. Later I did research and discovered that he had been a Law Clerk for Judge Michael J. Davis in state and federal courts, an Assistant Public Defender, Public Defender, Director of the Minnesota Department of Education’s Office of Equity and Assistant Federal Defender before he was appointed to the bench by Governor Mark Dayton in 2011 and then elected to retain his judgeship in 2012. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Mr. Norris in an interview after his judicial appointment said he was a runaway and homeless at age 16. He was fortunate to meet someone “in the business of helping kids,” who lead him to Runaway House and later to Carleton College, one of Minnesota’s premier private liberal arts institutions. There he became interested in law and then attended, and was graduated from, the University of Minnesota Law School.