I have a confession to make: I'm currently on day 2 of 5 weeks of grand jury duty. Yes, 5 whole weeks.
I write it in those terms because I feel embarrassed and ashamed every time I tell people this. When my family, friends, or coworkers hear that I am serving 5 weeks of jury duty, or when I mention to my fellow jurors that I am a Veterans Affairs physician, they respond with shock, "I can't believe they picked you!" or they make some sort of twisted, disgusted looking face. The impression that I get from them is outrage that I'm abandoning my patients and -- though this may simply be projection of my own feelings -- that I should have tried harder to get out of this responsibility.
I received my court summons 2 months ago and right away, I notified my supervisor to ask for guidance. He replied that I should just close out my clinic so no patients could be scheduled. My colleagues assured me that they would cover. I thanked them, but reassured them that I likely wouldn't be selected. I admit that part of me was ambivalent; wouldn't 5 weeks of jury duty be a welcome "break" from the grind of clinical medicine?
Fast forward to earlier this week. I sat in a crowded court room and soon realized that I had been called for grand jury, not petit jury, and that the two are very different. Petit jury, I have now learned, is a trial jury that determines a person's guilt or innocence. I had been summoned for petit jury some years ago and after sitting in a large room for several hours, I was dismissed without ever being called for "voir dire," which is when the trial lawyers question prospective jurors about their backgrounds and potential biases in order to select or reject that potential juror. Unlike petit jury, the purpose of the grand jury is to determine whether there is enough evidence to indict a person of a crime. Also unlike petit jury, there is no voir dire for grand jury (although I did not know that going in!).
Anyway, during the initial process of grand jury, the clerk asked for anyone who believed they couldn't serve to step forward. She explicitly stated, "Occupation is not a reason why you cannot serve. You can be a lawyer, police officer, law clerk, married to a lawyer, etc and still have to serve." So when I heard that, I stayed in my seat. She went on to list several valid examples of why a person might not be able to serve: medical or mental health issues, financial hardship (if a job wouldn't pay during jury duty), illiteracy. I thought, "No, no, no" and stayed in my seat with my nose in my laptop. But soon I noticed that the crowd had dwindled, and I became nervous. There was a break, and when we returned, the clerk asked if anyone would have an issue hearing cases related to sexual or domestic violence. I am a psychiatrist at the VA and care for a large number of female veterans who have experienced "MST" or military sexual trauma, but I thought, "Hey, I can be unbiased." I honestly felt that the question was directed more towards people who had been victims themselves.
So the next thing I know, I'm being sworn into grand jury duty with 22 other people! I couldn't believe it. I kept waiting for the voir dire, but at that point learned that grand jury doesn't have a voir dire process, and by then it was too late. I spoke to the clerk later that day, and she basically said as much: "Too late, you're sworn in now and you can't get out. Why didn't you speak up before?"
So that's the question I've been asking myself the last 2 days. Why didn't I speak up? As a psychiatrist, I've been trained to wonder about unspoken desires and ambivalence. I think part of me did see jury duty as a break. Yes, it's an inconvenience to my routine, but the day starts an hour later than my clinical day and often gets out early. It's nowhere near as mentally or emotionally exhausting as patient care. There is also a lot of downtime between cases when I can study for my upcoming board exams. And the courthouse is in a part of downtown that I don't normally frequent with lots of shops and restaurants.
So for all those reasons, I'm feeling guilty -- guilty that I put my own interests before my patients' needs. Yes, I had notified most of my patients that I may be out for the month of July. I don't do therapy, and I see most patients every 1-3 months, so I didn't have to disrupt weekly sessions. Yes, no patient appointments were actually cancelled. Yes, I have amazing colleagues who told me not to worry, that they would cover any emergencies that came up and see new patients during my absence. But I still feel like I am shirking my professional responsibilities.
I know jury duty is a civic duty. And just by being on jury duty the past few days, I can certainly say that I am contributing to the group diversity in terms of race, age, socioeconomic class, and education level. It is actually quite eye-opening and frightening to think that probably most highly educated and professional citizens get out of jury duty, which leaves important legal decisions to be made by people you might not want to be making important legal decisions. Thinking in economic terms, what's the opportunity cost of a good juror vs. of a physician, lawyer, or other educated professional? What's lost when a doctor is out of clinic vs. when an uneducated person is chosen for jury duty? I guess you could say, "Well, a doctor went through 7-9 years of post-college education to get here and is helping sick people, so their time is worth more than any Joe-Shmoe who could serve as a juror," but then is that fair to the defendant? Would you want a Joe-Shmoe to serve on a jury if it were your case? Can you really say that someone's health is more important than whether an innocent person goes to jail or a guilty person goes free?
I'm seeing that there is no clear answer, but all I can say is that I am still feeling pretty lousy about being on jury duty. The cases have been interesting, but I feel guilty being here and inconveniencing my patients and my colleagues and for getting this "break."
What would you do? How do you handle jury duty summons? Have you ever served? Do you think physicians should be exempt or always try to "get out of it?"
Bio: I am a new attending psychiatrist at the VA in a Mid-Atlantic city, studying for my board exams in September and mothering 2 young sons.