As an attorney and judge I have participated in more than 300 jury trials. I think juries almost always get it right, but I longed to be part of jury deliberations. Whenever I mentioned my desire, people typically said, "You will never be kept on a jury." Last September, on my tenth summons, I proved them wrong.
I was delighted to be called to the jury box to replace the first person excused. I had planned to describe my occupation as "working for the state of California in a dispute resolution forum," assuming that the attorneys would know me as a judge and that it would be better if the other jurors did not: They would thus not be unduly influenced by my position, and they would not select me to be the foreman. But both attorneys were from outside the county, so I had to introduce myself as a judge.
It was a personal injury case, and when I dutifully explained that my son is a radiologist, my wife and another son are lawyers, my daughter a law professor, and yet another son was in law school, I feared these associations could be cause for dismissal from the jury. I was shocked when I joined the others to be sworn as jurors. At the break I called my supervising clerk, who thought I was joking and laughed when I told her I was serving on the jury and would be away more than a week. But eventually I convinced her it was really true.
Jury service was everything I hoped it would be, with battling medical experts, conflicting testimony, and vigorous advocates on both sides. I was disappointed when the plaintiffs' attorney accused the defense of "deception, delay, and denial," which I considered unprofessional and invidious. The defense attorney wasted a lot of time impeaching testimony with insignificant differences from prior depositions. I had to restrain myself from ruling on objections. But I was enthralled with the drama of the trial and filled four pads with careful notes.
As we shuffled out of the courtroom after closing arguments on the sixth day, I felt that the plaintiffs had grossly overvalued the nature of their injuries. I was concerned that the other jurors would be prepared to award them the hundreds of thousands of dollars they asked for, and I was uncertain how to voice my opinion without being overbearing.
In the jury room I declined to be elected foreman. I also decided to let others speak before I did. I was pleased when they began to note all the inconsistencies, weaknesses, and contradictions in the plaintiffs' case that I had noticed. They caught the examining doctor's mention of the calluses caused by "heavy, arduous labor" on the hands of one plaintiff who was supposedly unable to work. They brought up her vacations to the Bahamas and Hawaii within six months of the accident, even though she testified that she was in constant pain and could not even ride in a car.
The other jurors gave great weight to the expert's opinion that the treating doctors' fees were unreasonable - more than twice the rate that 80 percent of doctors in the area charged. They carefully considered the competing testimony of doctors who predicted whether the plaintiffs would need further knee and neck surgeries. Without any input from me, they all dismissed the "hired gun" who testified for the defense that the operations already performed were unnecessary even though they alleviated the plaintiffs' pain. I ended up saying very little except, "I agree."
I was proud to be a member of this diverse jury, among people of different sizes, shapes, colors, backgrounds, experiences, and personalities. Everyone was polite, attentive, open minded, respectful of all opinions, and thorough in their consideration of the evidence. I needn't have worried about this jury reaching an excessive verdict. In fact, had the defense attorney not suggested an amount for pain and suffering, we would have awarded much less.
My belief that juries usually get it right was confirmed. I left feeling energized by my experience and full of admiration for my fellow citizens, fond memories, and renewed faith in the system.
Glade F. Roper has been a judge in the Tulare County Superior Court for 23 years.