Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Called to Serve

A few weeks ago I received a summons for federal jury duty. I've been called for jury duty before, but it has always been at the county level. The few times I have gone, it has been pretty much the same drill. I have to appear at a building in downtown Detroit. I sit for a few hours on an uncomfortable bench or chair reading a book, and then they tell me I have been released and I can go home.

This summons was different. In federal jury duty you are "on call" for a period of two weeks. They tell you to call after 6:00 PM each night to get your orders for the next day. The first week went by just fine. I was actually in Ohio with Mark Johnson. Every time I called the number, it told me that I did not have to report. This week I had a feeling things would be different. And I was right. On Monday afternoon, I got an e-mail telling me that I was scheduled to appear the next day. I called the number that evening after 6:00 PM just to be sure. 

Federal jury duty is in Ann Arbor, which is about 45 minutes from my house. They can pull jurors from six surrounding counties, so there were people from over a hundred miles away who also had to serve. When I arrived at the courthouse, I reported to the jury room on the second floor. There were about 40 people gathering in the space. The man working at the desk told us to sit and watch a movie and then we could ask any questions. 

The movie was entitled "Called to Serve." It featured some current and former justices of the Supreme Court, including Sandra Day O'Connor. She talked about the importance of trial by jury as a fundamental right for U.S. citizens and she said something that really stuck with me. She said that even though most of us think jury duty is a hassle and an interruption to our lives, it is important that citizens like us participate so the jury pool is as wide and representative as possible. And she asked us to think about how we would feel if we were on trial, and wouldn't we be comforted to know there were people just like us on the jury.  

Somehow in the current political environment in our country, it made me feel safer to think about how citizens play a role in the justice system. After the movie was over, the man came back and explained a few more details about the process. I just assumed we would go down to the courtroom in small groups, but a few minutes later he came back and told all of us to gather our things and he led us all downstairs to the courtroom. As we walked down the hallway toward the courtroom, I noticed pictures of Barack Obama and Joe Biden smiling down at us, as if to greet us on our way to perform our civic duty. I shuddered at the thought that in just a few weeks, those photos would be replaced with Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

I have never seen the inside of a courtroom before. It was smaller than I expected. When we walked in, the judge, the defendant and all of the attorneys were standing facing us. There were about five rows of benches with an aisle down the middle. Most of us fit on the benches, but a few people sat on folding chairs in the back of the room. The judge greeted us and introduced the lawyers and the defendant. The judge was probably in his 60's and seemed to run a pretty tight ship. He thanked us for being there and explained a little about the court proceedings.

As it turned out, the defendant was accused of health care fraud. As the judge read the list of charges, I felt the tears starting to well up in my eyes. I thought about the years I'd spent researching and investigating health care fraud at various health care organizations throughout my career. And how happy I am that those days are behind me. I could not imagine spending a week or two as a juror, listening to witnesses sift through mounds of claims data and medical record reviews to show that this doctor committed health care fraud. I pulled a tissue from my purse and wiped the tears from my eyes before anyone had a chance to notice.

The judge finished with his instructions and asked the court assistant to fill the seats in the jury box with potential jurors. The assistant called fourteen names. Twelve jurors and two alternates. I was relieved that my name wasn't called in the first round. The judge reminded us that there is a process for excusing jurors, either for cause or preemptively, which means the attorney does not need to give a reason for excusing the juror. 

Once everyone was seated in the jury box, they handed out a standard list of questions and asked each person to read the list and answer the questions, such as:
  • What is your name?
  • Where do you live?
  • How long have you lived there?
  • What do you do for a living?
  • Are you married?  If so, what does your spouse do for a living?
  • Do you have children?  If they are grown, what do they do for a living?
  • What publications do you read?
  • Have you ever served in the military?
  • Are you a member of any clubs or organizations?
The questions were simple, and yet they managed to evoke some very personal details about people's lives. One woman worked in customer service and her husband was disabled. He was on oxygen 24/7 and could not leave the house. Another woman worked the midnight shift at a factory in Port Huron, which is over two hours away. She had just gotten off work to come to jury duty when she normally would be sleeping. Another woman worked as a designer and her husband had just lost his job at Buick after 16 years. She was the sole breadwinner for their family. One of the men had just been diagnosed with skin cancer and was waiting for the doctor to schedule his surgery in the next few weeks.

And those were just a sample of the stories. There were executives, hairdressers, nurses, students, engineers, teachers, fitness instructors, and just about any other profession you could think of. As I listened to each person's story, I realized that Sandra Day O'Connor was right. This pool of people represented our community. And everyone had a unique experience. It was a quick snapshot of the human condition. 

In real life, we rarely have the opportunity to learn other people's stories. We pass each other on the street or in line at the grocery store and perhaps share a smile or a nod, but that is about as personal as it gets. It made me wish there could be some other circumstance where we could all interact on such a human level. Although I guess many of those people wouldn't have shared any of those details with a room full of strangers if they weren't under oath.

I was also surprised at how unconcerned most of the people seemed about the potential of serving on the jury for the next two weeks of their lives. There were a few people who spoke up because they had planned vacations or other concerns, but for the most part, even when asked if they had any concerns about serving, people simply said no. On the other hand, I had already planned my speech to get out of it. If I got called up to the podium and the judge asked me if I had any reason why I could not be impartial in this case, I would explain that I had worked for years investigating health care fraud and with everything I know about the health care system I could not possibly be impartial in this case.

And I knew they would agree. So even if I got called up to the jury box, there was no chance that they would actually select me for the case. With that in mind, it was a little easier for me to sit back and watch the process. It was fascinating to see how the attorneys interacted with the judge and the jurors and which issues they focused on. The two attorneys had completely different styles, as you might expect.

The prosecuting attorney was a petite Asian woman wearing a pale grey dress and matching blazer, with her hair neatly tied back. She did not ask very many questions of the witnesses. And her discretionary exclusions seemed to focus on people who had stated some reason they did not want to be there, and yet the judge did not excuse them for cause. She let the man with skin cancer go, which I thought was kind. She also seemed to focus on getting the well-dressed professional males off of the jury. Maybe she felt they would be too sympathetic to the defendant, a doctor.

The defense attorney was completely different. He had a more laid back style. He tended to ask the jurors questions about their prior jury service and whether there was anything they didn't like about serving. And he focused on people who seemed to have hardships, like the woman whose husband lost his job and the woman who worked midnights at the factory. I think he was trying to make sure he had people who really wanted to be there - or at least eliminated the people who had significant distractions that might prevent them from focusing on the case.

Near the end, another woman got called up to the box and when they asked her if she had anything that would limit her ability to serve impartially on the jury, she said that her friend was a patient of another doctor that had also been convicted of health care fraud. At first, the lawyers on both sides didn't seem to think it was a big deal, but then the lawyer for the defendant figured out what she was talking about. And he started asking her questions about the case. 

It turned out that there was another doctor in Rochester Hills who was found guilty of giving patients false diagnoses of cancer so he could treat them for the disease and bill the insurance companies. Her friend was one of the patients. In that moment, as the case was discussed in the courtroom, the energy started to shift. I could see that all of the potential jurors were as horrified as I was at this revelation. And I think they started to understand the impact of the case they were about to hear. Luckily, that woman was excused from serving on the jury.

After that, they went through a few more rounds of exclusions and then they were done. The judge announced that they had a jury and the rest of us were free to go. He told us that we all probably felt like we "dodged a bullet" by not being selected for jury duty that day. And he was right, I did. 

But then he shared that every juror that he has spoken with in the last 30 years, without exception, has said that they appreciated going through the process of serving. That it made them feel more connected to their country and their community. He also said that he hoped that even through our brief time in the courtroom today, we would walk away feeling like the justice system works a little better than we thought. And he was right. I did.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A teachable moment...another side of healthcare...the victim...sorry the patient