By Alexandria Staubach
While jury service is touted as one of the highest forms of public service an American can perform, it’s difficult to find a person who will admit they enjoy it.
Jury duty has a reputation for being inconvenient, and time-consuming. It generally comes at a significant personal expense and involves a mind-numbing number of hours spent waiting. Finally, it’s a little intimidating and at least a bit uncomfortable. Read: If you’re excited to sit in judgment of another person’s actions it’s unlikely any lawyer really wants you on their jury.
Nevertheless, under Wisconsin law, jurors are eligible for up to five days of service within a month or until any case they have been seated on is over. You can serve as a juror for only one month in a four-year period. The pay is abysmal, especially if you’re missing work and your employer isn’t compensating you. Within 30 days of your service, a half day will earn you $17, a full day, $25.
As a lawyer I’ve been on the other side of a jury plenty of times arguing my case, but I’ve never been called for jury duty. I was to report for service on Monday, Oct. 16, at 8 a.m., but the day began well before then. Unless you’re taking public transportation or getting dropped off, you’ll need to locate and pay for long-term parking. No location is particularly close, and none is particularly affordable. The cheapest option, which is often full, is a half-mile’s walk and $10 a day.
This is somewhat compensated for by the fact that Milwaukee County's courthouse is beautiful. The neoclassical building was completed in 1931 and includes Beaux-Arts details with sculptures and truly interesting tile and marble work. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. While it retains much of its charm, it also holds the grit of having dispensed nearly 100 years of justice.
There is a significant security line around 8 a.m., and it is bustling with attorneys, witnesses, family, observers, and jurors all sharing the same crowded hall to enter. I disarmed myself of my cell phone, keys and laptop to proceed through the metal detector. Once through, I made my way to the third-floor jury management room, where I began my day as a potential juror.
While the wait was often long, everyone interacting with jurors is incredibly kind — so respectful, so appreciative. As if to silently say, “it’s the least we can do.” After two hours of reading, people watching, and chatting with my fellow compatriots in limbo, at 10 a.m. my name was called. Sheriff’s deputies lined us up by assigned number in the hall outside jury management and marched us like ducks from the main courthouse to the Safety Building, traversing a city block and several flights of stairs in a group of 30.
The Milwaukee County Safety Building is a sky bridge and world apart from the courthouse. The Safety Building was originally constructed in 1929 and housed the central police station, city and county court, city and county jails and the county sheriff. In the 1990s the county moved their detainees to a newer facility, paving the way for the Safety Building to house additional courtrooms and legal offices. This part of the building is distinguished from its neoclassical counterpart by its wholly custodial aesthetic.
We arrived at the courtroom of the Hon. Jeffrey A. Wagner and again lined up by assigned number. Wagner took the bench in 1988 and his tenure predates the Safety Building’s courtrooms. Standing in line, we waited in the hall to be called, but 20 minutes later we were dismissed as the scheduled trial received a continuation. There was a large collective groan and everyone waddled back to jury management.
I resumed my seat and was soon called for another potential trial. We lined up again by assigned number and were guided back over the river and through the woods to the Safety Building (I cannot over emphasize how long this walk is), this time to the courtroom of the Hon. Laura A. Crivello. Crivello was appointed to the bench in 2018 and elected in the spring of 2019. She served as an assistant district attorney from 1995 until then. She runs a tight ship.
When we arrived in Crivello’s courtroom we were seated by number. The space was cramped with 30 prospective jurors, two people at the defendant’s table, two people at the prosecution’s table, a court reporter, two clerks, and a bailiff.
The judge introduced the parties and the charges. The defendant was charged with two counts of recklessly endangering safety and one count of felon in possession of a firearm. I was surprised to see he was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and was “pro se” (representing himself). On multiple occasions Crivello explained that these were his choices, and his choices alone.
Next came questioning called “voir dire,” which Crivello informed the panel meant “to speak the truth.” Crivello asked about disabilities, hearing, our collective ability to remain objective, and any experiences with the criminal justice system that might make us unfit for this jury. Despite grumbling outside the courtroom, every prospective juror was fully on board to participate. No one attempted lame excuses about why they couldn’t be there; no one cited dubious bias that would prevent them from participating. Having conducted many jury trials as a lawyer, I was surprised and impressed by the genuine and full responses given to the judge. Then we broke for lunch, which included an additional hour of unanticipated waiting.
When we finally returned to the courtroom, the defendant had changed out of his jumpsuit and put on a dress shirt and slacks. We were each asked to stand and tell the court our first name, occupation, marital status and spouse’s occupation, the name and age of any children, where in the county we resided, and a hobby. Once everyone had completed this, the state was permitted to ask questions of individuals. There was significant follow-up for those in the medical field – whether they’d dealt with trauma and gunshot wounds – curious given a lack of charge for assault or anything resulting in bodily injury.
Finally, the defendant asked us questions. Instead of asking questions of individuals, he asked the group whether we would be fair to him, whether we would hold it against him that he was representing himself, and whether we thought we could make the effort to understand him, even though everyone else in the courtroom was professionally trained. On more than one occasion Crivello corrected him or reminded him what was and was not permissible, cutting him short whenever he asked to make a record. With that, we were excused from the courtroom.
Next came a final stretch of waiting. I suspect from experience that the defendant was likely permitted to make whatever record he wanted and the parties then haggled over who would be kicked for cause (because they indicated they could not be unbiased or had some other impediment to service) and who would be each side’s peremptory strikes (Wisconsin law permits each side to eliminate four jurors without reason). Fourteen jurors (twelve impaneled and two alternates) were selected from the first 26 of us. I was last in the box, number 30, so the math to be selected was never in my favor. That was it. We were released and again sent back to jury management at 4 p.m.
Jury duty is a lot of waiting, and nearly everyone complained. For most people it’s also a lot of wondering about the many conversations taking place behind closed doors. In the end, though, I enjoyed it and I suspect – deep down – a lot of other people did too. The stakes are high. Everyone treats everything with reverence and respect. In an age when that’s difficult to come by, it was refreshing to know that decorum and civil duty live on in the Milwaukee County Courthouse, at least on this day.
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