Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The wisdom of a seven-year-old

Yesterday my oldest daughter was off from school because of Columbus Day. Now, I've never understood why Columbus Day was even a holiday in the first place. Maybe it's because I'm from the South. Or maybe it's because I'm Irish. I don't know. It never seemed holiday material in the first place.

I'll admit it was an impressive feat to sail across the ocean and get so lost you thought you were on the other side of the world (but that's something that happens routinely on college campuses, but that's another story for another day). But it's akin to my stubbing my toe on my neighbor's driveway and claiming I discovered a house.

But I digress...

Since no one outside the school district or the post office thought much of Columbus Day, my wife still had to teach at the local college and my youngest still had to go to her Pre-K class. Since I had to appear in municipal court Monday morning I thought it was time for a civics lesson for my oldest.

I mean, after all, that you can tell a lot about a people by the way they handle traffic court. You will find living proof that when you give authority to a person near the bottom of the food chain that strange things happen. You can also find out how unprepared young attorneys who went straight from law school to BigLaw are for the real world.

My client has a commercial driver's license so, through the collective genius of our state legislature (thank goodness they're only in session 140 days every other year -- I can't begin to imagine the harm they could do if they met regularly), our choices were to plead guilty, hope for a dismissal or take it to trial. And, since the complaint wasn't fatally flawed, we chose Option No. 3.

Since the officer didn't have to be in court until 1:00 pm (thank you, Mayor Parker, for yet another bit of absolute idiocy from City Hall), the judge was gracious enough to dismiss my client, my daughter and I for the morning.

We came back in the afternoon to find that the officer had signed in, but that the court would be hearing a case from 2008 (that's right, a jury trial for a speeding ticket issued over three years ago), that our case would be reset. My client wasn't altogether thrilled but she was aware of the consequences of pleading out the case.

As it turned out, a colleague of mine was trying the speeding case. I looked at my watch (knowing I had to get my daughter to her Brownies meeting at 3pm) and decided we would stay for voir dire because what could be more illustrative of democracy in action that a jury trial? I suppose you could say being stuck in a traffic jam would be metaphorically correct but let's not go there today.

As per custom, the prosecutor's voir dire was horrid. It was blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Then a pause for a yes-no question - then more blah, blah, blah, blah. That was followed by his apologies for the panel having to show up to hear a mere traffic case - like someone our state right to a trial by jury in any criminal case wasn't all that important.

My colleague then got up and thanked the jurors for coming and then pointed out that even though this was just a traffic ticket case, his client had the same rights as a man on trial for murder. I thought it was a good counter to the prosecutor's attempt to downplay the need to actually pay attention to the trial. My colleague then spoke about how sometimes it might be reasonable and prudent to drive below the posted speed limit and sometimes it might be reasonable and prudent to drive above the posted speed limit (in Texas we have a "presumptive" speed limit which means it's not necessarily against the law to drive over the limit, so long as your speed was reasonable and prudent given the circumstances existing at the time you were driving).

Don't ask me how the trial turned out because I have no idea - we had to leave right after voir dire to get to the Brownies meeting. But, on the way back to the car my daughter and I talked about what we had just seen. I told her that I thought both attorneys talked way too much. I had no idea how any of the jurors (with the exception of one woman) felt about any issues or what their attitudes toward the presumption of innocence were. My daughter then made the point that needed making -- you learn more by listening than you do by speaking.

If you want to find out what someone's thinking, you don't ask them a yes-no question. You ask them an open-ended question that allows them to elaborate. Or you ask them a scaled question that can give you a gauge of how strongly they hold an opinion. If you don't then you're going to end up with a jury comprised of the folks that never spoke up and you will have no idea what to expect of them.

Instead of giving an example of when it might be appropriate to drive under the posted speed limit (icy roads), why not ask the panel to give some examples of their own. Instead of giving them an example of when you might need to drive over the speed limit, ask them when it might be reasonable and prudent to do so. Instead of asking the jurors to raise their hand if they'd believe the testimony of a police officer more than the testimony of your client, ask them to rate (pick your own scale) the credibility they'd give an officer's testimony solely because he wears a badge.

You might not get to cover all of your topics that way, but you'll have more information on your chart and, if you keep a list of questions you'd ask if time weren't limited, you can ask the judge for additional time so that you can ask those questions. You just might get what you ask for -- and, if you don't, you've got an issue for appeal.

Voir dire is the only time during a trial that you have the opportunity to speak directly to the jurors and find out what makes them tick. Don't waste that opportunity by lecturing them. Take advantage of it by listening to them.

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