The old clichés are most assuredly the best clichés. I offer you “The wheels of justice grind slow,” as a flawless example. If you want proof of its flawlessness, just hightail your butt over to any of the courthouses in lower Manhattan and watch almost nothing happening at a majestically sluggish pace.
On the sixth of this month, eleven days ago in case you don’t want to count on your fingers, I showed up in one of the three separate court buildings I’d be entering and exiting in the ensuing two weeks. There was a long line stretching out into the street, because getting into a court building in lower Manhattan is a close approximation to boarding an airliner on a day when hijacking rumors are buzzing around the airport like platoons of rampaging mosquitoes wild with uncontrollable blood lust.
The courthouse airport shuffle
I took off my belt and tried to hold up my pants with my elbows while I took my cell phone, coins, keys and pen and deposited them in a Tupperware tub. Then I shuffled through a metal detector, which had been turned down low enough not to get set off by the fillings in my teeth, and retrieved my stuff just past the court officer with the electronic magic wand.
I spent the next hour or so in a large “jury room,” listening to a court officer drone on about how many perforated places we should find and tear apart on our jury summonses and in which basket on the front desk which part the summons should be deposited. Then they showed us a video that teaches how justice conquers all thanks to selfless jurors, and then let us sit and stew in our own selfless boredom for a while. (The courts do have Wi-Fi, but there’s no secureplace to leave your computer when you shuffle from building to building, floor to floor, and lunch place to court. You just have to lug it around with you all day. I wisely opted to leave mine at home.)
“We just can’t frisk you enough”
Right before lunch, a court officer led us downstairs, across the street, and a block to the south where we entered another court building, with more metal detectors and Tupperware boxes. From there we were led into another jury room, where we sat around for a while. Eventually, my name was among those of 60 potential jurors, who were lined up and sent downstairs to an actual courtroom for possible jury selection in a criminal trial.
It looked like it might be an interesting case. It had to do with crack cocaine. Some dude had sold “more than an ounce” – the dividing line in New York between "doing a little time" and sitting in prison until you rot –to an undercover narc. Almost instantly the jurors started to wonder aloud, to the discomfort of the judge and prosecutor, “Is this an entrapment case?” “How much more than an ounce? A microgram more or a truckload more? Do I have to sit on this jury if I think drugs should be legalized?”
Jurors of indeterminate gender
The judge finally stopped the jury from turning the tables and questioning the lawyers, since that would be like the asylum inmates grilling the psychiatrists. Eventually, the defense lawyer and the prosecutor chose their jury. I wasn’t wanted. Sex evidently played a role in the selection of this particular jury. The lawyers had chosen ten women and two people whose gender appeared undecided.
We were told to go back to the first room we had visited that morning, which meant crossing the street, going up the block, and going through the security line and the metal detectors again.
“If you’re here, go there.
But if you’re there, come here.”
Back in the first cattle pen, the clerk announced that we had blown our chance for a criminal trial and were now about to get shunted to a different court building for a civil trial. Again, we lined up, went downstairs, marched two blocks this time, entered the “Supreme Court” building (which in New York belies its title by conducting jury trials and having two levels of appeal above it.) Next, again having been duly frisked electronically, were told we had an hour for lunch.
Meanwhile, sixty jurors who were in the Supreme Court jury room when we arrived there were sent back across the street to a criminal case. The rule of thumb in New York courts is, wherever you are, you need to go somewhere else.
"Hey, we're close to Chinatown!"
One hour is just enough time not to be able to make it over to one of those great cheap Chinatown eateries, order something exotic, gulp it down, run back to court, and stand in the long security line for yet another frisking. So I ate a bad salad at a close-by bad deli, got back in line to get re-frisked, and returned to the jury waiting room in the not-so-Supreme Court building.
Early that afternoon, I got picked for a jury. This one had to do with a woman who tripped over a safety “shunt board” that covers electrical wires strung across a sidewalk. She tripped on it, took a flop and shattered her patella.
“If you think you’re impatient to get this trial going think of us,” whined one of the lawyers, while examining us to see if we were worthy to decide whose fault the wrecked knee was and how much it was worth. “We’ve been waiting for a trial for three and a half years now.”
Well, if they were in such a hurry to finish up the case, why didn’t they just settle it three and a half years ago? During the trial, I’d find out why.
“I want everything.”
“You’ll get nothing.”
The utility company that had placed the shunt board that the woman tripped on took the position, in effect, that “She shoulda watched where she was goin,’” and that therefore, they had no responsibility and owed her nothing. True, they had provided not an iota of extra light at night near the sign on a dark-ish block. No, there were no visual cues that the bump in the sidewalk was coming, such as orange cones or stanchions. But she shoulda watched where she was goin’. Hey, this is Noo Yawk!
The woman with the busted knee claimed no days of lost work, is not confined to a bed, wheel chair or a walker, presented no medical expenses (she’s presumably insured), demonstrated no loss of income or ability to make a living, paced the corridors during breaks and crossed her legs in the back of the courtroom. She complained only that she had some ongoing knee pain and that she could no longer take long energetic walks every night with her husband, (thus destroying her lifestyle, one supposes.) Then, perhaps fatally, she declared during her testimony, “Well, I feel I’m entitled to compensation.”
Entitled? Bad choice of language. If you live in one of the fancier ‘burbs and have a husband who testifies he’s a tax and estates lawyer, it’s not smart to claim entitlement in front of a six-person jury where two of the women are working-class Hispanics and everybody’s losing work listening to your complaints and demands.
Especially not considering that, after the jury was chosen, the trial was postponed for three days by one of the participants, and further into it, postponed another day by the judge.
“Can’t we just give her money
without somebody being at fault?”
But if you think the use of “entitled” blew some minds on the jury, you should have seen the shock when the plaintiff’s lawyer wrote “$500,000” on a big art pad with magic marker and suggested to women who deal with the daily aches and pains of their work for a salary less than a tenth of the award he wanted, that half a million bucks would be the only fair compensation to his victimized client.
Back in the jury room, it was chaos. None of us thought the pain and suffering caused by the injury was worth more than 50 grand, much less 500 grand. At least not on the basis of the evidence presented to us. And some wanted to give less. One woman, buying the electric utility lawyer’s reasoning, wanted to pay nothing because the plaintiff shoulda watched where she was goin’. Another wanted to award some money, but didn’t want to declare the electric utility culpable of negligence. It took nearly superhuman effort, and a not inconsiderable amount of time, to explain to her, over and over again, why you couldn’t give somebody money unless the other side was negligent. I mean, if you want proof that our schools are failing us when it comes to simple reasoning, just go sit in a jury room.
As the deliberations droned on, I kept hoping the lawyers in the courtroom would settle. “Maybe we can force them to settle,” I said sotto voce to a fellow juror. “We can send out two questions to the judge: 1. How many zeros are there in a gazillion dollars? And 2. Can we order the plaintiff to pay the utility’s legal fees?”
In the end, I think both parties got what they deserved. The jury put the utility on notice that while “Hey, jerk, watch where ya goin!” is a familiar New York idiom, that attitude might one day, although not with this jury, start costing them some serious money. And that maybe they ought to think about shining more light on those shunt boards. Or maybe just decorate them with reflective tape.
And the trip-and-fall lady and her negligence lawyer get to divvy up the 25 grand for pain and suffering and three and a half years of legal representation, however they agree to do it. Maybe next they can sue each other. Meanwhile, the lawyer with the watch-where-you’re-goin’ attitude has another lost case on his tally sheet. Next time maybe both sides will settle.
I coulda gone to Paris
As for me, I’m self-employed in a business where unless I can commit in advance to assignments, I can’t get them. While I spent only spent six days in court, those days were spread over two full weeks, thanks to the four days total of postponement. The state compensated me, $40 a day for the days I was in court only. I’ll never know how much daily income I lost.
Meanwhile, I had been through the courthouse metal detectors more so many times, I could have taken several airline trips to Paris.
As the jury exited the courtroom, I could nearly feel the glares from both parties burning into our backs. Oh yeah! We left nobody feeling happy.
Let me tell you jokers something. If don’t like the result you got, settle this crap on your own next time.