When the Wheels of Justice Wobble
When a letter from the District Court appears in your mailbox, you pay attention. At least, I do. It was a jury summons. But not just any jury—a federal grand jury.
Following the initial summons, I had to complete a questionnaire that included such questions as whether we had any guns in the home and what my children’s occupations were. Apparently, my answers were sufficient to ensure I’m not a serial killer or have some other criminal activity in my background.
I then received not one, not two, but multiple reminders via phone and email to appear at the federal courthouse in Des Moines on June 18 at 8:30 a.m. This is the same courthouse that the feds are determined to replace with a new facility on a prime piece of riverfront real estate. The city fathers continue to dispute the location. Should the feds relent and agree with local officials that the current facility only needs some updating, I suggest one priority be the security system.
The security staff is positioned right inside the front door with little room to maneuver. With 30-40 potential jurors arriving within minutes of each other, the security line had no place to form but outside. At least it was a pleasant 70 degrees, and the security team moved us right along.
Next stop: getting checked in, mileage verified, and receiving the Handbook for Federal Grand Jurors. Then on to the courtroom—a beautiful, august space. Not a bad place to wait—and wait we did.
Glancing through the handbook, I found the origin and history of the grand jury most interesting. The concept goes back to 11th century Great Britain. A group of citizens are charged with determining whether enough evidence exists to bring criminal charges. Central to the nature of a grand jury is the matter of confidentiality. Because ordinary citizens are hearing charges brought by the government, or back then the crown, which operated with no system of checks and balances, ensuring jurors’ secrecy was critical to the success of the system. What would prevent the king from going after those who approved bringing charges against him? The current push and pull over the Mueller Report and interest in the complete grand jury testimony became more real as I contemplated being in the position of a juror.
Shortly before 9:00 a staffer arrived and explained that she would begin seating us in the jury box. I quickly realized we were being called in alphabetical order. As expected, I was in the first batch. Soon 28 of us were seated in slightly more comfortable chairs of the jury box than the wooden benches we squeezed onto as we arrived. And we waited some more.
Thirty minutes passed. At least I had a book to read. Every reminder of our duty to appear had included clear instructions that cellphones are not allowed in the courthouse. Scrolling Facebook or Twitter or Kindle reading were not options.
Finally, we were instructed to rise. The judge entered, took her seat, and began instructing us on the process of seating a grand jury. Was this necessary? We’d had more than half an hour to read the handbook ourselves.
But wait. Something in this process had gone wrong. After selecting a cross section of citizens from the southern district, which encompasses the southern tier of Iowa counties between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, the firm that does the random selection failed to use the entire alphabet to select qualified jurors. We were not a randomly selected group, but an exclusive group whose last names began with A through K. The result? We were all dismissed. It’s not what you would call a tainted jury, but neither is it the representative group that a cross-section of citizens should be.
The wheels of justice grind slowly, as they say. Today, they wobbled. Thanks to someone who recognized the error, they took steps to right it. I only wonder why it took them until we were all assembled to notice the mistake. Could have saved us all a lot of time.