the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Lex Hall hal­llex@theaus­tralian.com.au jon kudelka

It’s only taken 23 years, but the law has caught up with me. Af­ter my third at­tempt to avoid jury duty, the sher­iff put her foot down. The Jus­tice Depart­ment re­jected what I con­sid­ered a rock solid ex­cuse. I never get any mail so when the first sum­mons ar­rived I felt a fris­son of ex­cite­ment. But, to para­phrase Amer­i­can co­me­dian Flip Wil­son, if you think no­body cares whether you’re alive or dead, try get­ting out of jury ser­vice.

My first shot at ex­emp­tion worked a charm. I still reread the let­ter I wrote and marvel at the flaw­less logic of my counter-ar­gu­ment. “Dear Sher­iff,” I be­gan, “Thank you for invit­ing me to serve on the NSW jury. How­ever, I fear my job as a jour­nal­ist and for­mer court re­porter will curb my abil­ity to re­main im­par­tial. Sin­cerely ...”

And sure enough a cou­ple of days later another let­ter ar­rived to in­form me I had in­deed been ex­cused — un­til the fol­low­ing month, that is. Soon fol­lowed another sum­mons. Sher­iffs are noth­ing if not te­na­cious. What’s more it seemed they were tar­get­ing our of­fice, for no sooner had I men­tioned it to my col­league than he replied: “I’ve been called in too! Eight-week trial!”

News of our po­ten­tially si­mul­ta­ne­ous ab­sence soon reached our su­per­vi­sor, who, pan­ic­stricken, scram­bled to get proper ex­emp­tion letters drafted. Out came the good sta­tionery on which she stren­u­ously un­der­lined our in­dis­pens­abil­ity to the com­pany. How­ever, this let­ter, like the first, only man­aged to win another month’s re­prieve. When the next sum­mons ar­rived my col­league flashed his up­com­ing hol­i­day itin­er­ary and was swiftly struck off. Lack­ing such pow­ers of an­tic­i­pa­tion, I was left with the sher­iff’s cold warn­ing to show up or else.

As usual in such sit­u­a­tions, peo­ple are quick to of­fer sug­ges­tions on how to side­step life’s predica­ments. And as usual such sug­ges­tions are sel­dom use­ful. “When you show up just say you think all ho­mo­sex­u­als should be hanged,” of­fered one wit. “Pref­ace ev­ery an­swer with the words ‘ac­cord­ing to the prophecy’,” sug­gested another.

So I did what I al­ways do when I’m in the soup: I con­sulted the in­ter­net. A brief search yielded a re­cent ar­ti­cle from the New York Post. In it famed crim­i­nal bar­ris­ter Ron Kuby re­vealed that the most com­pelling plea for ex­emp­tion in­volved a prospec­tive ju­ror on a po­lice bru­tal­ity case. “We were claim­ing emo­tional dam­ages as a re­sult of false ar­rest,” Kuby re­called. “The prospec­tive ju­ror, work­ing on his first novel, ex­plained that he did not ac­cept the idea of ‘cau­sa­tion’ for emo­tional dam­ages. He ex­plained, at some length, the na­ture of emo- tional life and its re­la­tion­ship to in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal fac­tors.” The dis­missed ju­ror was the now-ac­claimed au­thor Jonathan Franzen.

The Franzen de­fence seemed a lit­tle too tricky for me to pull off. For the most skilled jury es­cape artist re­lies not on com­plex le­gal or­a­tory but on clear ar­gu­ment con­veyed in few words. Bet­ter to fol­low the ex­am­ple of a woman from the Bronx who se­cured a quick ex­emp­tion with the words: “I have a weak blad­der.”

Faced with this wa­ter­tight alibi, the op­pos­ing lawyer was pow­er­less. “We didn’t want to stop the case ev­ery three min­utes for her to say, ‘I told you, I have to go to the bath­room again.’ ”

On my ar­rival at court a news pho­tog­ra­pher sta­tioned at the en­trance “papped” me as I walked in. Not an ideal start, I thought as I took my place in the jury assem­bly room, which re­sem­bled an air­port lounge. Over the next three hours we sat in si­lence, sip­ping cof­fee as an in­struc­tional video played. “I thought jury duty would be like you see in the Amer­i­can shows,” said the paid ac­tor pre­tend­ing to be a ju­ror. “It’s not like that at all; it’s re­ally re­ward­ing.”

Sud­denly my num­ber was called and I and another dozen peo­ple were mar­shalled to an al­cove to hear our fate. “We re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate you com­ing to­day,” said the of­fi­cial gravely. “You’re free to go.” We shuf­fled out, un­sure of why we had been granted this au­to­matic clemency. But then again, as Ge­orge Bernard Shaw once said, “only lawyers and men­tal de­fec­tives are au­to­mat­i­cally ex­empt from jury duty”.

I looked around. It was clear none among us was a lawyer.

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