As Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon, I know every judge, courtroom, corridor, nook and cranny of the Morris County Courthouse.
But until recently, I had lived and worked my entire adult life in law enforcement without ever being called for jury service – one of the Constitutional foundations of our country.
On my designated day to report to Superior Court in Morristown as prospective Petit Juror No. 170, I sat in the spacious jury assembly room with about 120 others who were summoned for the same day and got acquainted with some of the prospective jurors sitting near me.
Then my juror number was randomly selected to report to a courtroom where jurors were needed for a civil trial on a lawsuit.
Again, I was randomly selected to leave the courtroom gallery and sit in the jury box to face “voir dire” by opposing trial attorneys. An Anglo-Norman term that predates modern French, “voir dire” means “speak the truth.” It is the term for the preliminary questioning of jurors to determine their suitability to serve on a jury.
I hadn’t flinched nor viewed my jury summons as a burden or inconvenience. I didn’t cast myself as indispensable or too busy. The reality is, I was intrigued by the opportunity to be part of a jury, part of an eternal history of juries that our forefathers believed was an essential part of the justice system.
But I wasn’t sworn in as a jury for the civil trial. A lawyer used one of his peremptory challenges and didn’t need a reason to excuse me from sitting.
I have saved my jury instructions, which include a prohibition against using social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter during jury service, along with an admonition that “All information obtained during your service is strictly confidential.” I honor those rules: People have the right to their day – or trial – in court, without outside influences.
Nearly four decades before the now-historic Morris County Courthouse was built in 1827, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights and mandated that a person charged with a serious crime shall have a trial before a jury of his peers.
The New Jersey Supreme Court has broadly construed that the right to a trial by jury also extends to many civil cases.
Aside from jury service being a venerable duty, it’s a fascinating opportunity to see the justice system at work, close-up, and reach a meeting of the minds with other jurors if the case reaches the deliberation phase.
As a former detective and Deputy Chief of Investigations for the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, I served as a trial witness on major crime prosecutions and was always grateful for the dedication and thought jurors put into deliberations that resulted in verdicts.
Now, as the 77th Sheriff of Morris County, I’m proud to be responsible for security at the Morris County courthouse and ensure that all courtrooms and corridors are safe at all times. Even as the Sheriff, I’m not exempt from being summoned for jury service, and I’m grateful to our nation’s founding fathers for embedding this protection into our Constitution.
Please, view a summons to jury duty as a reminder that you are essential, not a cog in the machinery of the legal system.