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Essay: A willing juror is left on the bench

Judge Jerry Garguilo listens to testimony during a

Judge Jerry Garguilo listens to testimony during a hearing at State Supreme Court in Riverhead on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015. Credit: Randee Daddona

It was a special day in two respects. Dec. 12 was the 103rd birthday of my favorite singer, Frank Sinatra — and the day I was summoned for jury duty. I’ve spent 31 years practicing trial law and 10 more as a justice of the State Supreme Court in Central Islip, so I eagerly reported to Supreme Court in Riverhead.

It was only right that I serve. I’ve spent much time convincing others that unlike dental work, jury service is interesting and rewarding. So there I was, a judge on jury duty.

“Fly under the radar” was my mantra. I quietly took a seat among 200 or so people in the waiting room.

As a fan of Dr. Jason Bull, the jury consultant on the CBS-TV drama “Bull,” I studied my fellow jurors — what they read and wore. The array seemed balanced in gender and race. I looked for the types lawyers encounter. A man in his 30s wore a blue-checkered jacket, poorly matched pants and a tie that should have been returned. Had I been a lawyer who would engage him during jury selection, I’d be intrigued. Would he be imaginative and whimsical? Would my case call for that? If so, then much as Dr. Bull, I would give a thumbs-up.

I overheard the snarky type who answers innocuous questions with sarcastic non-responses. He was explaining to someone what he would say to get out of serving. A thumbs-down from Dr. Bull, no doubt.

Another man was “the heckler” type. He might see his wisecracks as a source of entertainment.

Then there was “the enthusiast” who wants to be on a jury, any jury. I was in that category.

Hallelujah! My name was called by the clerk. I entered an empaneling room with about 35 others. Three lawyers were there to select a jury to hear a car-accident lawsuit, a civil case in which fault and injuries were to be assessed.

The lawyers knew me and saw that I wanted no special treatment. All names were placed into a rolling drum. Six names were drawn. I was sure I’d be chosen. (As a 7-year-old in Brooklyn, I was randomly picked as Cub Scout pack leader.) Not so in round one.

The plaintiff’s lawyer told everyone about the 600-pound gorilla in the room: His client was unlicensed to drive and would testify with the aid of an interpreter because English was not his first language. He wanted money as compensation for his injuries.

“Does that matter to any of you first six?” the plaintiff’s lawyer asked the other candidates.

I knew the right way to answer: Of course not. Just because you don’t speak the language or are driving without a license does not give a hall pass to someone who is otherwise negligent to injure you.

But no one gave that answer.

Jurors were excused and more names were drawn.

As I sat, I recalled an incident at least 20 years earlier. As a trial lawyer, I was selecting a jury in a civil case. In the array was a federal judge whom I greatly admired. Thinking he had loftier matters to tend to, I quietly told him, “I’ll see to it that you are excused so you can be on your way.”

He smiled warmly and said, “No, I want to serve.”

Well, back in the present, the drum kept turning and unlike the 7-year-old Cub Scout, my name was never announced. I was excused from duty. As Mr. Sinatra sang, that’s life!

Perhaps most important on that day, an old lesson sunk in. That esteemed jurist who told me he wanted to serve was saying there is no courtoom seat more hallowed than a juror’s.

I do hope to be summoned again. Having experienced trials as a lawyer and as a judge, I remain eager to experience a trial in one of those chairs reserved for our peers, the jurors.

Reader Jerry Garguilo lives in St. James.