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The day after I was sworn in as a New Jersey state senator 13 years ago, I received my first request from a fellow senator: Would I please arrange to get his friend, who lived in my home county of Morris, out of jury duty? Until then, I hadn’t paid much attention to who actually served and who got off. But something didn’t seem right about allowing those with political connections to skip jury duty. So I respectfully declined to intervene. Ironically, that request inspired me to revise the law in New Jersey to expand the list of prospective jurors and allow only those who suffer “severe hardship” to be excused from serving. I believe that – next to military service and voting – jury duty constitutes a citizen’s greatest contribution to American society; it is an obligation not to be shirked simply because of personal inconvenience or financial sacrifice. As a result, I prime-sponsored, with Assemblywoman (now Senator) Loretta Weinberg, “An Act Concerning the Selection and Qualification of Juries,” L. 1995, c. 44, approved on March 7, 1995. The statute, N.J.S.A. 2B:20-1 et seq., remains in effect, and in recent years it has become easier to fulfill in many counties, since residents are now required merely to serve one day or one trial not more than once every three years. Under this law, virtually everyone – including senators – became eligible for jury selection; henceforth only a county assignment judge can excuse someone from jury duty, and then only for a designated statutory cause. Thus, I was hardly surprised when I, too, was finally summoned for jury duty on June 13, 2006. Along with 350 other residents of Morris County, I reported that morning at the courthouse in Morristown. Officials advised us that several juries would be empanelled that day. After a preliminary panel of 80 jurors was chosen for one trial, I was selected as part of another panel and instructed to report to Judge W. Hunt Dumont’s courtroom. Upon arrival, Judge Dumont informed us that a personal injury trial would ensue that would require a jury comprised of six jurors and one alternate. After potential jurors were randomly selected by computer, the judge proceeded to conduct an individual voir dire of each one. Most of those questioned were deemed acceptable by both the judge and the trial lawyers. A few, however, were removed for cause or by peremptory challenge. I became the last person chosen for this jury, after the woman previously selected as juror No. 1 was later excused for undisclosed reasons. My selection as an actual juror certainly came as a surprise. I had assumed – because I was a state senator, law professor, practicing attorney and father of a local lawyer – that the judge or at least one of the trial lawyers would seek my removal. Presumably, either of the trial lawyers could have excluded me, since neither had exhausted all of his peremptory challenges. As for myself, I did not object, trusting that – if the parties wanted me to serve – I could perform the task fairly and impartially. Shortly after the trial began, one of the other jurors requested and was granted removal. Hence it became clear that all six remaining jurors would be needed to render a verdict. I also knew that, because I had been placed in jury seat one, I would eventually be designated as the foreman. Needless to say, I was curious about my fellow jurors. We were obviously a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, age, education and work experience. But we got along well and grew increasingly friendly as we became more acquainted during the many breaks that occurred during the weeklong trial. I tried as best I could to blend in with my colleagues. Like them, I dressed casually, although not as sporty as the other male juror, a young man who wore baggy shorts and a backward baseball cap which he only removed in the jury box. I also tried to downplay my notoriety, requesting that the court attendant not refer to me as senator and reminding other jurors that each of us had an equal role in deciding the outcome of the case. The case involved the alleged negligence of a large supermarket resulting in a middle-aged woman’s slip and fall in one of the shopping aisles. Her injury eventually resulted in neck surgery and permanent disability. After weighing the testimony of expert and fact witnesses and examining numerous exhibits, we, the jury, found unanimously for the plaintiff. We awarded her $876,000 as compensation for pain and suffering, the only type of damages she had requested. Not surprisingly, our verdict received widespread publicity. It garnered front-page headlines in the county newspaper, The Daily Record, and was prominently featured in the state’s largest paper, The Star-Ledger. It also became a topic of discussion in columnist’s blogs and letters to the editor. In these reports – which invariably mentioned that Senator Martin had served as jury foreman – the commentary was typically critical of this “outrageous” award and often implied that the so-called damages were contrived or unrelated to the accident. Apparently, these commentators instinctively assumed that someone who happened to fall in a supermarket and proceeded to sue the owner must be a con artist out to make a fast buck. What seemed to be overlooked was that, in this case, all six jurors had found the plaintiff highly credible and, conversely, had determined that the defendant had misrepresented the facts after having failed to exercise reasonable care. Perhaps the greatest frustration I experienced in serving as a juror was not being able to explain the reasons that led us to arrive at our verdict. In nonjury trials, judges are required to set forth findings of fact on the record in order to justify their decision-making. But juries are restricted in their official pronouncement, and in our case we were instructed simply to declare that we had found the defendant negligent, that the negligence had caused the plaintiff’s injury and that the plaintiff should be awarded a fixed amount of damages. My experience as a juror led to further reflections about trial procedures. I became acutely aware that jurors are not generally permitted to ask questions during trial (except through written request), as can judges whenever they don’t understand a response or seek to obtain more detailed testimony. Additionally, jurors are usually prohibited from taking notes, although judges, lawyers and even witnesses may and constantly do engage in note taking throughout the trial. In fact, the trial lawyers often read verbatim from notes when questioning witnesses and rely on notes when giving summations, as do judges when delivering final instructions. I also realized that jurors might easily conclude that they receive second-rate treatment – despite platitudes extolling their invaluable contributions. In our case, for instance, we were informed that the trial would be extended an extra day to accommodate a physician scheduled to testify for the defense. Yet neither the judge nor lawyers bothered to inquire whether that accommodation would conflict with jurors’ schedules, thus ultimately forcing one (unemployed) juror to cancel a job interview and another to rearrange long-standing travel plans. Other seemingly small matters proved irritating. Jurors were cautioned that they could not drink water during the trial because it would be “distracting,” even though pitchers and glasses of water were routinely made available to witnesses, lawyers and the judge. Moreover, during the morning and afternoon “coffee” breaks, jurors were sequestered in the back room without any amenities – including coffee. And needless to say, jurors were keenly aware that the $5 per diem compensation that they would eventually receive would barely cover the cost of lunch, let alone the cost of gas for travel to and from the courthouse. Yet, paradoxically, when it ultimately came time to render a verdict, our jury was then bestowed with immense power and responsibility. In preparation of our deliberation, the judge gave us detailed instructions, which in this case lasted about an hour. These instructions amounted to a mini-course in tort law, similar in content to what some law students have trouble absorbing over the course of a full semester. Although the judge read from carefully prepared notes, we again were prevented from taking our own notes (but reminded that we must closely follow all of the instructions). We, the jury, were also told that if the defendant was found to be negligent, we must then arrive at a fair, just and reasonable award of monetary damages. But we were also informed that there was no specific guide on how to calculate an appropriate amount. So when we ultimately decided that negligence had occurred, the calculation of damages proved exceedingly difficult, in part because we had to factor in the aggravation of pre-existing injuries. We also had to arrive at a dollar value for permanent injuries, which, in actuarial terms, would affect the plaintiff for another 28 years. In determining the monetary award, the jury relied on a version of the time-unit method for calculating damages. Still our “formula” was hardly scientific. And it is worth noting that some jurors had initially suggested amounts that differed by well over a million dollars. Yet one thing seemed clear: none of us would have voluntarily traded the plaintiff’s neck surgery (with the insertion of a steel plate) and indisputable life-long pain for any substantial financial amount. Nevertheless, we also did not want to be perceived as a “run-away” jury. So we concluded that it would not be appropriate to award a seven-figure amount in damages. Whether our ultimate determination of $876,000 was “fair,” of course, is certainly debatable (and the defense attorney later indicated that it would be appealed). Over the course of our deliberation I became increasingly aware that other jurors were relying on me for assistance, especially in dealing with abstract legal concepts and procedural issues. For example, I was asked to clarify what the judge meant by “proximate cause” and its significance in proving a negligence claim. I do think my familiarity with the law proved helpful to fellow jurors; but I remain undecided as to whether it’s advisable to have a lawyer serve on a jury � especially as its foreman. I am convinced that in our case my opinions swayed other jurors and were extremely influential in the final outcome. In retrospect, I can state unequivocally that my service as a juror taught me invaluable lessons about the legal system, ones that law school and the practice of law have never afforded. Perhaps the most indelible observation is that jurors really do take their obligation seriously. Every juror I encountered tried to do what was right and what was fair. Although some may not have originally wanted to participate, once appointed they accepted their role and performed conscientiously. By being one of them, I gained a much deeper appreciation for their service, sacrifice, and most importantly, sincerity. Martin, R-29th Dist., was the sponsor of a 1995 law that eliminated most exemptions from jury service. He is also a law professor at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark.

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