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Commentary

Juggling Civic Duty And Your Business

Last night we delivered a verdict. Guilty of all charges -- including 5 counts of identity theft. The victim: a small business. But what about those of us on the jury -- are we victims too? Our identities weren't stolen, but our time and freedom was.
Last night we delivered a verdict. Guilty of all charges -- including 5 counts of identity theft. The victim: a small business. But what about those of us on the jury -- are we victims too? Our identities weren't stolen, but our time and freedom was.Late yesterday, my time as juror ended after a 3-day criminal trial. More about the trial and those identify theft charges another day. Let's focus on jury service right now. Most of us have received a jury summons and I would guess that almost all of us open that envelope with the same feeling of dread. In the abstract, I'd like to think we all believe (or at least those of us registered to vote) that jury duty is part our obligation. But I've never met anyone who hasn't responded to a jury summer by asking, "How can I get out of this."

When my turn has come up before, I've called in and never set foot in the actual courthouse. bMighty associate editor Jennifer Moline had that experience last month when, over a 24 hour period, she called several times to see if she was required to report to the courthouse. She was not.

Where I live now, you don't call in, you show up. Hoping my day as a cog in the wheels of justice wouldn't be a total loss, I took my laptop, figuring I could work offline and find a Wi-Fi hotspot when they let us out for lunch break. Incidentally, for this particular situation, Clear's Mobile WiMax service has serious appeal. But I had it all wrong. The juror waiting room -- where approximately 300 of us waited to be called into jury pools in different courtrooms -- was hardly the Spartan affair I'd expected. There were comfortable chairs, some couches, flat screen TVs, shelves of books, coffee, pastries, and most importantly Wi-Fi. Was it my office? No. But I was answering e-mails and getting work done at a decent clip. It changed what would have been a lost work day into a low-productivity work day. And that's something -- so kudos there.

Surprisingly comfortable and functional as it was, I don't for a moment think anyone wanted to be there. The diversions and comforts eased, but didn't erase the sense of captivity. Most of us didn't want to be there, wanted to get out of there ASAP, and didn't want to serve on a jury (that's an anecdotal conclusion based on conversations I participated in and overheard).

The aversion came into clearer focus when my name came up for jury selection (of the 35 in the jury selection pool, 13 of us -- 12 + 1 alternate -- were selected as jurors for the aforementioned criminal trial). The creature comforts vanish in the courtroom; judges don't want you multi tasking (no cell phones, no smartphones, no laptops). Of the baker's dozen in that jury box, 11 have full-time jobs (1 is retired and 1 unemployed).and on the scant breaks in the proceedings we all did the same thing -- got on our phones and check in at work. There was more desperation in some voices than others, but the sense that we're on hold while we could be working was palpable. And that's doubly true right now with the daily onslaught of layoffs and business failures -- not a good time to be absent for business owners or employees.

If I'm personally involved in the trial's outcome, I want the jury to be attentive and involved. I don't want whoever was "trapped" on the jury that day deciding the outcome. I'd imagine few would argue with that. But there's a case of NIMBYism here -- everyone wants their jury to be top notch, but no one actually wants to serve on a jury.

And for smaller companies, that aversion is even more acute. A large enterprise can absorb the work of a person missing a few days. But a small ship runs leaner and doesn't have the same luxury. If I'm a business owner and my employee is called to serve, reaction is going to a less polite version of "Oh No!" And Wi-Fi at the courthouse doesn't really help when it comes to planning around the absence. And in my mind, that's the toughest part of the equation: unpredictability. Will jury service be over in a day, two days, a week? You can't know. And as the economy demonstrates every day, uncertainty and business make poor bedfellows.