The Scales of Justice Put to the Test

Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomCounsel had conferred with the Judge for several hours handling last-minute motions and decisions. The clients had waited three years. Still, the minutes ticked by and progress came about slowly.

Defendant’s attorney reviewed the motion quietly; a banker’s box full of documents behind her on the floor represented the case. Plaintiff’s attorney was verbose, his voice carrying across the courtroom as he spoke openly with his clients. Their “case” occupied one corner of the room: 5 boxes, 1 suitcase, a briefcase on wheels, another without wheels, and 4 large, black 3-ring binders filled with hundreds of pages of evidence.

The jury pool had been summoned early that morning and waited in the anteroom as the Judge finished pre-trial housekeeping. She was a pretty lady; shoulder length blonde hair, a stern smile, and such an authentic southern drawl so rarely heard it sounded foreign. The “Court” respected her immensely. Mid-morning she looked over her purpleish-pink reading glasses and asked in her slow, heavy drawl, “Are we ready for the jurors?” – pronounced in her own elegant way “jur-roars.” Everyone responded, “Yes, your Honor.”

After he had fetched the jurors, the Bailiff stepped inside the door to advise they were ready and the Court stood in respect as all forty-one entered single file to be questioned – a process called voir dire, which means, “to speak the truth.”

Plaintiff’s counsel goes first, and sometimes first and last in all matters. Holding a long list of questions in his left hand and gesturing with his right, he looked like an old-time, Pentecostal preacher urging these folks to be brutally honest and to do the right thing. By the time he asked the first question, he had spent twenty minutes establishing the case. Forty-one potential jurors looked between Plaintiff and Defendant establishing opinions of right and wrong. It seemed the case would be tried before the jury was even selected.

The room was tense, anxious as the jurors were questioned on how they felt about this, or that. Could they make an unbiased decision on the relevant points of this case? Silence would persist until one juror would bravely stand and state their beliefs. Then another, and another would find the confidence to be brutally honest.

A court sketch shows Judge John M. Cleland addressing the jury pool during the jury selection process in the child sex abuse trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry SanduskyWere they related to the Plaintiff or Defendant? Is there any reason they would find it difficult to award recovery to the Plaintiff? Did they believe the Court awards too much money in cases such as this? A young woman on the back row began crying uncontrollably. After a brief conference at the bench, she was dismissed.

When counsel had exhausted their list of questions, they were ready to strike. The Court sat in silence as Plaintiff and Defense wrote a code by each juror’s number indicating whether this juror or that juror was found acceptable. The faces of the panel changed as it became they who were being judged. Nurses, teachers, a project manager, insurance agents, the wife of an adjuster, the unemployed and retirees all evaluated based on the attorneys’ belief as to whether they could render a fair and unbiased verdict in this case.

The first objection came just sixty seconds into Plaintiff’s opening statement, a statement which would last nearly 45 minutes. Another juror was in tears. Recess was called and the juror confessed the tension was too great. She was dismissed. Plaintiff’s counsel apologized to the remaining jurors and one alternate, but made it clear he held no regret about his intention to bring out the “facts” of this case. He would remain harsh, tough, insulting and bitterly scathing from years of being a bulldog attorney.

Family pictures were presented, a story of 50 wonderful years of marriage ensued, and then the agony caused by the vehicle that brought us here in the first place. The vehicle, occasionally referred to as a Hummer or a big black ‘something,’ quickly became the focus of the Plaintiff’s case…. a bigger-than-life picture permanently fixed on the overhead screen of the Court.

I sat quietly and listened to the cumulative opinions of the Plaintiff regarding this incident – careful not to let the jurors witness one stray emotion across my face. My heart was pounding as I remembered the attorney’s advice, “It’s just business, don’t take it personally.”

Objections were made; some sustained and even more over-ruled. Recess was called more than once to decipher the law. Not unlike life itself, the next step of one depended on the next step of the other. A dance of sorts. At times it was a lively dance, while other times it bored us to tears.

After three grueling days, the case ended. Not everyone was happy, not everyone was sad. The jurors found a compromise that resolved the debate, the Jeep that brought us here in the first place is happily parked in the driveway, and I am a satisfied defendant of this system of justice.


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