Wrong Message On Right To Be A Juror

The joke about Batson is that the decision was grounded in a person’s “right” to be a juror, as if nine out of ten people who receive a jury notice leap for joy at the prospect. From the peculiar perspective of certain activists, this is a goal, to bring maginalized people into the venire who have been denied access, stricken from juries and precluded from their “right” as a citizen to sit in judgment.

Many people would pay to avoid this “right.” Many don’t care. It’s not that jurors don’t take their job seriously once they’re in the box. Indeed, they take it very seriously, and do their level best to be good and fair jurors. But they would rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Deandre Somerville was selected to sit as a juror. He was the only black person on the jury, which shouldn’t matter but does. It matters to the lawyers who picked him, or more likely, didn’t strike him from the panel. It matters to the litigants, as he may bring a difference perspective to the panel, for it he didn’t, there would be no real point to the concept underlying Batson at all. It should have mattered to Somerville.

Somerville, who was chosen and sworn in as a juror for a civil case, told [Judge John] Kastrenakes he overslept when he was supposed to report for duty Aug. 21 and then didn’t call in as instructed to let court officials know of his absence. According to the court filing, Somerville’s action delayed the trial less than an hour.

Oversleeping happens. It’s not responsible conduct when one is supposed to arrive on time for jury duty, but not everybody is as responsible as they should be.

“My first reaction when I woke up was, ‘Oh shoot, I overslept.’” He said that he should have notified the court, but that he had been nervous about the repercussions.

Jurors are usually given instructions, including to be there on time, as the case can’t proceed without them, and to call in if there’s any problem, so the judge knows about it and can address it by adjourning until the juror arrived or, if he wasn’t going to make it, replacing the juror with an alternate. They’re usually handed a phone number. Somerville didn’t call.

Not long after missing jury duty, he said, the police showed up at his home, where he lives with his grandparents.

He wasn’t taken in cuffs to court, but received a subpoena to appear a few days later.

He said his grandparents told him, “The best thing you can do is be honest.”

Honesty is the best policy, and no one can blame Judge Kastrenakes for being angered by Somerville’s irresponsibility, both in failing to appear and failing to call. Trials become a problem when jurors just disappear into the wind.

But when he was brought before the court, having delayed the trial by less than an hour before he was apparently replaced, which isn’t a good thing but also isn’t the end of the world, as trials get delayed for reasons good and petty all the time, Judge Kastrenakes imposed an extraordinary price on Sommerville’s “right” to be juror.

  • He was held in criminal contempt of court, giving him a misdemeanor criminal record.
  • He was sentenced to ten days in jail
  • He was fined $223.
  • He was required to write a “sincere” letter of apology.
  • He was ordered to perform 150 hours of community service.

There was a message to be sent here, perhaps, although it’s perpetually doubtful that the “message” argument, usually technically characterized as general deterrence, works. It’s an intuitive argument, marshaled by those who want to justify their demand for a pound of flesh, and gets filed under “common sense.” Experience suggests it’s largely malarkey, as people either don’t think about it until afterward, don’t know or don’t care, but since it feels as if it makes sense, that’s good enough for most people. It was good enough for Judge Kastrenakes.

Sommerville slept late and then failed to call in.

“You failed to come to court,” Judge Kastrenakes said. “We waited almost an hour for you to come to court; you didn’t come. I had the jury office call to see where you were. God forbid you’d been in an accident or something terrible had happened. You shut your phone off.”

He isn’t the first juror to not show. He won’t be the last. Having the judge give the wayward juror a stern tongue-lashing, maybe even requiring him to write a 1000-word essay on the importance of fulfilling responsibility, would have more than sufficed to make the point.

Sommerville served his ten days, and his cause was then taken up by the public defender. The judge relented somewhat, reducing his community service and agreeing to expunge his criminal record upon completion of the sentence. But the idea of making an example of Sommerville backfired, and instead the judge made an example of himself as a jurist out of control, outrageously harsh and abusive of his authority for such a minor transgression. Even the reduced “sentence” was far too harsh.

It’s not that Sommerville didn’t screw up. He did. Twice. It’s not merely a “right” to be a juror, albeit one that most of us could do without, but a responsibility. Sommerville was irresponsible. It’s not too much to ask that a sworn juror wake up on time. They even have alarms to make that happen. It’s not too much to ask that a sworn juror, having once screwed up by oversleeping, call in and inform the court that he will be late. These minor expectations of modest responsibility are not so burdensome that it’s too much to expect.

But the message Judge Kastrenakes sent was not to take jury duty seriously and be responsible, but that some judges abuse their power, lack the constraints of proportionality and the humility not to do outrageous harm over petty transgressions. He sent a message, alright, but the message was that he lacks the discretion one expects of a judge. Sommerville is no hero, no paragon of virtue, but in the scheme of irresponsibility, Kastrenakes’ mishandling of the situation is the message received.

11 thoughts on “Wrong Message On Right To Be A Juror

  1. Guitardave

    The thing that sucks about a story like this is the emotional reaction to it. More fuel for the rhetoric of “the system is broken…we must DO something” . Another arrow in the quiver for the unthinking proponents of AI robo-judges…..because changing something ‘bad’ always makes it better….amiright?
    ( ..now, let me prove that ” I’m not a robot”….)

    1. SHG Post author

      As expected, the reform activists did their best to turn this bad scenario into proof of systemic outrage. No matter what goes wrong, it can always be twisted into something worse.

      1. Guitardave

        Yes.
        They don’t realize that their “cure” for human mistakes like these will also eliminate the possibility of mercy in situations that warrant it.

    2. MelK

      The line that tickled me was, “You shut your phone off.” A curious point of outrage. Wonder what he would have done back in the ’80s? Or the ’30s?

  2. JorgXMcKie

    I once served on a $100M civil trial that lasted a month of 4 days a week presence. One guy, the same guy, showed up late 15-30 minutes every single day. The judge never said a word. I was hoping there was a good reason and that the judge was cutting him some slack. He was a conscientious juror once he got there.

  3. F. Lee Billy

    What happens when the judge shows up late, hung-over and/or incompetent, blathering idiot? Huh, huh! Been there, done that,… More than once.

      1. F. Lee Billy

        Are you a real lawyer, or just a die-hard Dylan fan? Like man, I mean, I’m a Dylan fan too, but this went over my petty little head, for real. Maybe later!

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