Inside Jury Duty in Milwaukee
A day in the life of a Milwaukee County juror.
My time had come. I received a letter in the mail from Milwaukee County Circuit Court and was scheduled for two days of jury duty this week. While some might greet this “Official Court Business Jury Summons” with dread, my natural curiosity and sense of civic duty took over. So I decided to keep a running journal of everything I encountered. This is my time as juror number 1048348
8:55 a.m. – I’ve made the walk from my bus stop on W. Wisconsin Ave. over to the south entrance of the Milwaukee County Courthouse. As a regular visitor to the political, not judicial, function of the courthouse, I’m well prepared to handle the airport-esque security you must endure to enter the building.
8:59 a.m. – I’ve rushed up the staircase to the building’s first floor and into the jury assembly area. The whole process would seem a lot more dignified if you could actually enter the building on the first floor; instead security practices force you down into the basement and through a metal detector before you can climb the stairs to the building’s great hall on the first floor.
9:00 a.m. – Wow, this place is packed. Unlike a county board meeting where you show up a minute or two late and seats are still easily available, jury assembly has packed over 100 people in a theater-style room. I find myself squished into a seat between a support column and a friendly gentleman with an overload of tattoos.
9:04 a.m. – The show has started. Milwaukee County jury services manager Lori Schumann tells us that circuit court judges Cynthia Davis and Michael Hanrahan and clerk of circuit court John Barrett will all appear to thank us for our service and educate us on the process.
9:13 a.m. – A video to motivate (and educate) us is played.
9:30 a.m. – Video over. Seventeen minutes is apparently all it takes to prepare you to be a juror. Surprisingly decent quality. The TVs are quite small though, probably a five percent chance anyone in the back of the room actually saw it. Fifty percent chance someone in the back couldn’t tell they changed the channel from Kelly Ripa explaining to us what she did last night on Live with Kelly to Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Shirley Abrahamson explaining to us the process of being a juror.
9:34 a.m. – John Barrett is here and he’s brought jokes. Turns out Tom Barrett wasn’t the funniest one in the family growing up.
9:49 a.m. – I spy someone I know in the crowd. What are the odds in a county of just under one million people that a random sampling of 100 people would include someone I know?
9:51 a.m. – I have escaped the dark, theater room for an open room that has windows and tables. It’s of course packed, as we were instructed not to leave the jury assembly area (except during our roughly once a hour breaks), but there is certainly more space than the “theater” room. I’ve been here for less than a hour, but I’m totally on-board with building a new courthouse complex. It’s quite obvious that in order to fit the number of people needed into this building (which Frank Lloyd Wright once described as a “million dollar rockpile”) compromises have been made left and right. On the plus side, there are vending machines, bathrooms, a refrigerator, microwave, a few public computers and it feels clean. On the downside, you’re going to spend the day real close to a lot of strangers.
10:02 a.m. – John Barrett warned us the wi-fi would be slow. That would be an understatement. He noted that jurors are free to give ideas: my number one suggestion right now is faster internet access. I’m thankful I brought my laptop. We’re ten minutes in and some people already look bored and are attempting to sleep.
10:11 a.m. – I’m using every ounce of willpower to avoid eating my lunch before 10:30. It’s going to be a long day.
10:31 a.m. – Lunch time! I don’t feel guilty about eating, because lots of people came well prepared with food and almost no seems to want to talk.
10:33 a.m. – The first jurors are called. I didn’t make the randomly-selected list, so why not keep eating?
11:30 a.m. – We’re dismissed for lunch and given an absurdly long two-hour break. I’m off to catch a bus down Wisconsin Ave. to Urban Milwaukee HQ in East Town to snag a couple hours of work at my desk. I could just stay and keep working on my laptop, but the chance to escape the deadly quiet room packed with strangers is too alluring. I plan to take advantage of the free Milwaukee Public Museum access (with your juror sticker) during tomorrow’s lunch break.
1:05 p.m. – I snag a Bublr Bikes bicycle at the intersection of N. Water St. and E. Wisconsin Ave. to swing back to the courthouse. This jury duty thing doesn’t seem hard at all if I get to spend half the day at my office.
1:17 p.m. – I make my way through security. I’m getting really good at taking my belt off while walking down stairs (a skill I assume is required to be a good attorney in Milwaukee).
1:19 p.m. – I’m back in the jury pool assembly area. Lots of people here just staring off into space, which is mostly what they were doing when I left. How many of these people never left? Nope, doesn’t look like I missed any action.
1:23 p.m. – I can see 33 people from where I’m sitting. Not a single one of them has said a word since I’ve come back.
1:24 p.m. – Of the 33 people I can see (there are many more in other rooms, but the racial makeup seems consistent at a glance), three of them appear to be black. All females. If you’re a black male, you’ll have a really hard time getting a jury of your peers.
1:47 p.m. – We have to be here until 5 p.m.? That’s 193 minutes more. Hope someone rips a loud fart just so we can all have a laugh.
1:55 p.m. – For all the idle time we have here, and the number of people that seem to be thumbing magazines, it’s odd that no one has mentioned that the Milwaukee Public Library‘s Central Library is across the street. But we are informed of what movies are playing in the theater room. This strikes me as an obvious opportunity to encourage people to visit the gorgeous Central Library and utilize things their tax dollars buy.
1:59 p.m. – The wall clock made a bunch of noise in the countdown to 2:00 p.m. Finally a shared experience for everyone in the room.
2:05 p.m. – 35 jurors called. This place is emptying out. It’s still eerily quiet, save for the occasional bathroom goer hitting a chair while trying to navigate their way out of the maze.
2:14 p.m. – Another group of names called, including me. Say hello to juror number 30!
2:18 p.m. – Our group of 30 is escorted upstairs by a bailiff to the sixth floor courtroom of judge Pedro Colon. On the way into the courtroom I spy a defense attorney I know leading a client to meet with another judge.
2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. – We’ve caught a criminal case. The voir dire process takes place so that the judge, the state’s attorney serving as the prosecutor and the defense attorney can get to know us. The 30 jurors also get to know each other in the process. Some are married and one of us is widowed. One has 10 kids and many of us have none. One served time for armed robbery and another works as manager of a grocery store that gets robbed a lot. One has a newborn and needs to use a breast pump regularly and another needs diabetic medication. Three of us identify as living on the Lower East Side and many come from the southwest suburbs. One is a scoring official for a golf tour and another is a pesky journalist trying to chronicle this. Only one of us, like the defendant, is black.
After a lengthy period of questioning by both sides of the case, we’re escorted out of the room to two jury deliberation rooms. Immediately everyone pulls out their phone, yet it looks like everyone is following the judge’s instructions not to look up the details of the case. After waiting for a relatively short period, we’re ushered back into the courtroom via a back hallway. The whole suite of rooms looks far less glamorous than anything you would see in a TV show.
3:40 p.m. – Those of us not selected make our way to the first floor jury assembly area. Taking me by surprise, no one starts discussing the case.
3:50 p.m. – Back in the main room, I briefly discuss what I missed with others sitting by me. Turns out the case called earlier in the day was for judge and likely sheriff candidate John Siefert‘s court.
4:29 p.m. – Back in the jury assembly area, we’re dismissed early for the day. Despite being scheduled for two days, we’re dismissed after one. We’re told we’ll be paid $25 for our service ($8 for each half of the day, plus $9 for transportation) and won’t be called again for a minimum of four years. We’re thanked for our service, given letters to show our employers and instructed to go to work tomorrow.
So that was it. Pretty anti-climatic. I spent less than a hour in an actual courtroom, and only a handful of hours in the courthouse. I technically didn’t miss much work because I could bring a laptop with. Those that didn’t have laptops had magazines, smart phones and books. For anyone that can take a bus or bike to the courthouse, the process of getting there is painless. If you had to drive, there are plenty of parking garages in the area. The notion that jury duty is some great inconvenience seems laughable. Yes, being on an actual jury would take more time, but you’re guaranteed to be done by 5 p.m. every day and given regular breaks. If that’s the cost of democracy, it’s a small price to pay.