Thursday, July 24, 2014

Choosing a Jury in the “Olden Days”

A few weeks ago, while looking for something else in the Court Administrator’s office, a black, wooden cube, maybe 18 inches on a side, was discovered.  This cube had a cylindrical handle attached to one side, two small drawers at the bottom and a dish-like depression on the top, with a wooden cover that would swing over the dish and back again to allow access.

The minute I saw it, the name Bea Goetsch popped into my head.  I can remember, as a young attorney and a new judge, watching Chief Deputy Court Administrator Bea carry that wooden box into the courtroom at the beginning of a jury trial.  The cover over the dish was swung aside so that she could take, one-by-one, little slips of paper from the dish and read the name to choose the jurors who would be placed in the jury box for the judge and attorneys to question to see if they would be chosen to sit for the trial starting that day.

Before computers, that is, before 1994, the jury panel was chosen from a list of registered voters for Sibley County.  A committee of five persons would hand pick prospective jurors from the list of eligible voters.  (I recall the first time I ran for County Attorney a lady said I didn’t have to talk to her:  She didn’t vote so that she wouldn’t be called for jury duty!)

The prospective jurors’ names were typed on perforated paper so that each name was on a paper the same size.  Then, the slips would be folded twice and placed in the bowl of the black box.  Bea would then randomly pull names from the bowl, announcing each name in open court. 

Sometimes jurors were excused.  The slips for those jurors went in the left drawer at the bottom of the black box.  Those who were chosen to sit for the trial were placed in the right drawer. 

Now a list of registered voters is merged by computer with persons who have driver’s licenses in the County.  From that list, the computer randomly selects the number of jurors needed for the term.  Then, on the day of trial, the names of the jurors who have been summoned for jury duty that day are randomly ranked by the computer to let the Court Administrator and the Judge (but not the attorneys!) know who will be chosen first and who is on the bottom of the list.

The new system is certainly more efficient and undoubtedly fairer.  But, I sometimes miss the drama and pomp as Bea Goetsch would reach into the bowl at the top of the black box to call the next name…

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Next Week:  Coffin nails