How to Survive Jury Duty in Philadelphia

Sorry I’ve been absent the past few days. I had jury duty.

I wasn’t picked to actually be on a trial, but it was for federal district court, which meant I had to travel down to Philadelphia for a few days.

Since I’ve had a ton of people ask me what it’s like, and I know I hit up Google looking for stories before I went, I thought I’d share my experience.

It started roughly 2 years ago when I got a questionnaire from federal court. It asked basic questions, like your job, where you live, if you’re able-bodied, just to rule out those who truly can’t serve. That’s your first heads up that you’re gonna be called.

Then last May, I got an official looking letter in the mail. It told me to report to jury duty. The problem? My report date was April… I’d received the summons a full month after my report date.

I immediately called the courthouse, hoping there wasn’t a warrant out for my arrest. The man there said that my number hadn’t been called, but I should be on the lookout next year because it was probably going to happen eventually. (Tip 1: if you don’t need to report the first time, you’re not off the hook. There is no escaping.)

So, I’ve been dreading it since then. In March of this year, I came home from a work trip to find that I’d been summoned.

How it works is fairly simple: You receive the summons in the mail, and have to complete the blank contact information and send it back. The letter also gives you a phone number to call the night before you’re scheduled to report, which will tell you whether or not you’re needed.

If you live more than 50 miles away (My house in Ephrata clocks in at 70 miles from the courthouse), you can stay in a hotel either the night before you might be called in and/or during your term. I knew that getting up at 2 am to take the train down would be torture, so I booked a hotel close by for Tuesday through Friday, checking first with the hotel that I could cancel if I was dismissed. (Tip 2: If you do live 50 miles away, take advantage of this. Some people were from really, really far away and had taken trains and buses down at 3 in the morning, and then had to sit there for 12 hours. The hotel was easy to book and you’re reimbursed, just make sure you can cancel your reservations if needed.)

Tuesday night I called in and was told I needed to come in. I grabbed Smashburger (which will get its own post soon enough) and hopped on a Septa regional rail train from Malvern to 30th street station. If you’re coming to the city from the suburbs, I highly recommend this approach. Parking is $1 a day, and the trains run every few minutes and are easy to navigate. Once I arrived in Philly, I took an Uber to my hotel and settled in for the night.

The next morning, I walked to the courthouse, which was pretty easy to find. You go through security and then up to the jury assembly room. After waiting around for roughly 45 minutes, they start by showing you a cheesy video on the importance of jury duty and with a 25-minute orientation.

Then they start picking jury panels.

I ended up being number 50 out of 60 potential jurors for a criminal case. I can’t disclose too much about this part of the process (not trying to get arrested), but basically you sit down and the judge explains the duties of the jury. He then asks you a bunch of questions to see if you have any biases, like if you know any of the attorneys or are related to the case somehow. You raise your hand with your numbered card if you agree with any of the statements or questions. After the group questioning is complete,  the attorneys met with the judge and called up jurors one-by-one who they wanted to know more about. Then, roughly 3 hours into the process, the attorneys go back-and-forth making their selections (it’s getting picked for basketball teams in high school, except you hope you’re the odd man out). The 60 potential jurors are weeded down to 16, who are then the jury.

I raised my hand to a couple of questions, and because I cover court cases for my job, they didn’t seem interested in me. Which was fine. That’s not a hard and fast rule though — some people who raised their cards a lot were the first ones picked. The process is long and draining and pretty uncomfortable. In our case, the defendants’ families were seated right behind us, which was pretty sad. You also were directly facing the lawyers and defendants, and could see them eyeing you up and down as they made their selections. We were stuck there until almost 3 p.m. before we were dismissed for lunch. (Tip 3: Pack food, water and a good book… you’ll need it.)

After being dismissed and grabbing some food, we headed back to the assembly room where we were given our fates for the rest of the week. See, when you’re called in, you’re told it’s either for 3 days or 1 trial… but everyone who was dismissed from that initial jury was pretty much told that they didn’t have to come back. I headed off, canceled the rest of my hotel stay, grabbed a septa train and got home in a reasonable amount of time.

The experience wasn’t necessarily bad. It was long and draining and incredibly inefficient (hello, federal government), but it definitely was interesting to see how it worked up close. My biggest problem was the expense. I’m fortunate that my job covered my day away, but most (including those who work hourly) aren’t so lucky. The trial we were on was going to last 2+ weeks, which is killer for some people to go without pay. Plus, when you factored in the cost for the hotel, travel and food, it was an expensive overnight trip. Yes, I’ll be reimbursed, but they pay a flat rate which may or may not cover all of the expenses.

I’m not gonna lie, it sucks. But try to remember that if you were in that courtroom, you’d want a fair, impartial and not-pissed-off jury of peers judging your case. There’s really nothing much you can do about the situation, so think of it as a time to take a break, sit back and relax (since you won’t be doing much of anything, anyway).

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