Steven C. Wernick

Passover in Court 1102

Last Wednesday, I was called for jury duty. My first reaction probably was like a lot of other people’s -- how do I get out of it? but then I changed my mind

Last Wednesday, I was called for jury duty.

My first reaction probably was like a lot of other people’s — how do I get out of it? So I began to prepare my strategy: “My best friends are lawyers. I daven with the state’s chief justice. I am a rabbi.” (I have heard that clergy typically are not chosen because prosecutors fear that they will not convict.) And then there is the failsafe get-out-of-jury-duty answer: “Yes, I believe that police officers are more likely to be telling the truth, because they are police officers.”

Then, as I sat in the jury assembly room, I changed my mind. I decided to follow the process wherever it may take me. There were a few reasons for this change of heart. The first was because it was just a few days before Passover. Another was something the chief justice once said to me. (I really do daven with him every Shabbat and yom tov.) He said that when his friends are called for jury duty, invariably they ask him, only somewhat in jest, “How do I get out of this?” It was as if he were speaking directly to me.

And then he was, my friend the chief justice, in a video shown on a big screen at the front of the jury room. In the video, he said that throughout history people have struggled for justice. He reminded us that our jury system is the foundation of our justice system; it is the realization of historic dreams for freedom.

With the advent of Passover, the holiday in which we Jews celebrate our freedom from Egyptian slavery and seek to apply the lessons of the exodus to our modern circumstances, I found myself wondering how I could intentionally skirt my civic responsibility. After all, it is the foundation of justice in the freest society the world has ever known.

‘Steven Wernick, report to court 1102’

It was a narcotics case. Two young men were indicted on several counts: possession of narcotics, intent to sell, intent to sell within 1,000 feet of a school. There were about 150 people in ths jury pool; several were already seated in the jury box. The process was meticulous and detailed. The judge explained the case and read every one of the 18 yes-or-no questions each person had to answer. The questionnaire was designed to measure a person’s capacity for impartiality based on such things as his or her views about law enforcement and whether he or she has relatives in the military or law enforcement.

Following the questionnaire and a break, the judge dismissed approximately 50 people, sending them back to the general pool and the jury assembly area. My name was not called, so I stayed in court 1102.

The next step of the process was a sidebar with the judge and attorneys, during which the judge asked four open-ended questions. It was here that I was asked my profession. “Rabbi,” I said. I was asked if I thought that being a clergyperson might affect my ability to return a guilty verdict. My response was no. My talmudic training taught me to focus on the facts in the pursuit of justice, a primary Jewish value.

Interestingly, it was the defense attorney who asked about my ability to serve, because the trial was expected to last three to three and a half days plus however much time the jury needed for its deliberations. This court generally is not in session on Fridays. The seventh day of Passover began on Friday. Would there be a conflict? The judge paused to consider the question and then sat me as Juror Number 1, replacing someone who had been excused. Clearly, he agreed that the trial would go three and a half days. That meant that the deliberations would begin after the chag. Timing would not be a problem.

And there I was: Juror Number 1. More people were seated. The prosecutor declared that she was satisfied with the panel, but the defense attorneys continued to excuse jurors. They did not excuse me — at least not then.

The process takes a long time. It is well-scripted to ensure that no legitimate claims can be made about the jury panel. The prosecutor and defense attorneys are given ample opportunity to question potential jurors and to excuse a number of them, both for concerns about the possibility of impartiality and also at their discretion. I was struck by how respectful all the attorneys were to the jurors, and to each other – rising in their places when it was time to speak, saying please and thank you with every sentence. And the judge, when excusing a juror, said, “Thank you for your time and consideration. We wish you a pleasant day.”

As all of this unfolded, I had a lot of time to think. I thought about how concerned the court was with jurors’ taking the time to serve. This case was expected to last a week. That’s it. In my 27 years of eligibility, this is the closest I have come to serving on a jury. One week in 27 years. Is that too much for my country to ask of me? If I were Israeli, I would have served in the IDF for three years, and then for one month a year over the same 27-year span. By comparison, if I were Israeli my country would ask for five years and three months of my life, and it would ask something similar of my children. And, of course, there would be the very real possibility of sacrificing my life for the security of the state.

Jury duty to safeguard my freedom as an American is a much smaller sacrifice. The proximity to Passover seemed to reinforce this point.

I also thought about my kids and the holiday’s messages that I want them to internalize: justice, freedom, concern for the poor and the vulnerable in our society. My children know how busy I am. If I were to devote a full week to serving on a jury, that would have sent a powerful message to them. They would have realized that jury service is important. And I also started to look forward to the intellectual challenge of examining the evidence, determining which testimony is most compelling, and applying the law as instructed by the judge to the evidence presented to me.

By 3:15, it was looking more and more likely that I was going to be seated. I was Juror Number 1! And then it happened. The defense excused me, and without any explanation. “Rabbi Wernick, you are excused,” the judge said.

And that was it. It was over. After the mental aerobics, psyching myself up to serve with pride, I was rejected. Why wasn’t I considered acceptable to serve? When I look back, my change from “How do I get out of this?” to “Why am I not good enough?” was astonishing. It was a remarkable experience and served as a great conversation piece with family and friends about justice, country and Passover.

I’m thankful for the opportunity and find myself looking forward to the next jury call in three years. Guaranteeing our freedom means not passing over these opportunities.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Tzedec in Toronto. Rabbi Wernick currently serves as Vice-Chair of the Jewish Agency Aliyah Committee and as member of its Government Relations Committee and as Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee of Mercaz Olami, the Zionist party of Masorti Judaism. He has been named one of Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America and was on the Forward's List of Influential Jewish Leaders.
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