“Right over here,” says the garage attendant, directing me to a premium spot reserved for the L.A. Philharmonic’s wunderkind music director Gustavo Dudamel, who, apparently, drives a late-model Porsche. Not only am I parking on level one of the Disney Concert Hall’s underground garage; I’m parking for free, thanks to the Los Angeles County Superior Court. I’m here to fulfill a civic obligation that is dreaded by most: jury duty.
Thanks to the court’s optional online juror orientation, which I did over the weekend, I’m skating into the late moderne Stanley Mosk Courthouse at 9:30 a.m. Entering the jury assembly room, I’m greeted by amenities we can’t even count on at LAX: working Wi-Fi, spacious tables, comfortable chairs, and a free Internet kiosk.
At 9:35 a.m.—far more promptly than I expect for the L.A. County judicial bureaucracy—the jury administrator calls my name along with 23 others. Voir dire, the questioning of potential jurors, takes up the rest of the morning and goes into the early afternoon, when siestas seem more pressing than justice. One candidate, a scarf-wearing reader of The New York Review of Books during breaks, weasels her way out of service by refusing to budge on the question on whether she could be fair to a corporation if a corporation were a party in this case. “No, your honor, a corporation is not a person, and therefore I can’t treat it like a person,” she responds.
“There are parts of the law I don’t agree with, but that I am obligated to follow,” says the judge. “Are you telling me you can’t do that?”
“That’s right,” she claims. “I can’t.”
When it’s my turn, I mention that I’ve sued an insurance company in small claims court (and won) but that I could still hear the evidence and be impartial. My truthful answer passes muster, and the next thing I know I’m on for a trial that is expected to last a week. I gulp and make a mental note to let my clients know.
Then, for the first time since sixth grade, I’m ordered to take recess—90 minutes for lunch. Which is when I make what might be the greatest discovery of my time on jury duty: the Panorama Café, the courthouse’s ninth-floor cafeteria, which has a wrap-around patio with a 360-degree view that includes Dodger Stadium, City Hall, the Cathedral, the Music Center, and a perfect sightline of Bunker Hill’s skyscrapers. As Joann L. writes on Yelp.com, the Panorama Café is “super legit amazing, not the ghetto but legit amazing.”
Serving on a jury is generally thought of as being mind-numbing, but, over the next five days of testimony, the case is even more “legit amazing” than I could have imagined. The plaintiff is alleging that three of his former colleagues hazed him to the point where he couldn’t bear coming to work—even when one of his former colleagues turns out to be a family friend. The accounts of what happened and why differ markedly, depending on who’s telling the story.
The following Monday—a full week after I was first called in for jury duty—my fellow jurors and I finally retreat to the jury room. We take our job seriously, going through detailed aspects of the case point by point, resolving our differences, and bridging once-wide gulfs of opinion. By the beginning of our third day of deliberations, one of the jurors asks if any of us went to bed thinking about the case, and even woke up thinking about it, too. Yes, we all admit to each other, yes.
We render a mixed verdict, assessing monetary damages against one of the defendants but not the others. The case is complicated, nuanced, and difficult, and my fellow jurors and I are physically and emotionally spent. We know our decision, both legally and monetarily, will have a lasting impact on the plaintiff, the defendants, and even their attorneys, for years to come.
It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked for a mere $105 (jurors are paid a tiny bit for their service), and I’m so exhausted I feel as if I were on trial. And the thing is that I could have been. Cases at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse are mostly small claims, civil, probate, and family law. But these are the ones that often have the biggest impact on the everyday lives of Angelenos from around the county: landlords vs. tenants, car repair facilities vs. customers, ex-wives vs. ex-husbands.
I hope I don’t return to the courthouse as any of those parties. Regardless, though, I know I’ll be coming back, if only for the Panorama Café tostada lunch special.
David Gershwin is a Los Angeles-based public affairs consultant and a board member of Zócalo Public Square where this article first appeared. The views expressed are solely his own.