The blue-and-white envelope summoning District residents to jury duty comes with almost clockwork precision every two years.
Hang out in front of the DC courthouses on any given day and there’s a good chance you’ll spot some recognizable faces—perhaps even those in charge of enforcing the law: FBI director Robert Mueller had jury duty this summer (he was excused), and attorney general Eric Holder was called just before he took over the Justice Department. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Karl Rove, longtime adviser to George W. Bush, were in the same jury pool a few years back. DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee was picked as a juror in an elevator-accident case in June. DC mayor Adrian Fenty got the call in 2008.
Norah O’Donnell, MSNBC’s chief Washington correspondent, describes her experience on a DC jury as an eye-opener. The case involved domestic violence and kidnapping charges against a man accused of beating up his girlfriend, who was six months pregnant. In a twist, the defendant’s star character witness was his wife, who was eight months pregnant. “I of course wanted to throw the book at this guy—one, for having a girlfriend and, two, for beating her up,” O’Donnell says. When it was time to deliberate, the judge told O’Donnell she was an alternate—the identities of alternate jurors aren’t revealed until arguments conclude, so that they don’t take their duty any less seriously. Says O’Donnell: “I was so disappointed.”
Underscoring the small jury pool in DC, O’Donnell happened to know two of the other jurors on the case—Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, and Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. The defendant was found guilty on some but not all charges, and Krumholz says the deliberations were contentious: “I felt like we were revisiting Twelve Angry Men.”
Even judges aren’t exempt from jury duty. Judge Laurence Silberman of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit was chosen after the plaintiff’s lawyer made a mistake. It’s unconstitutional to exclude people from juries on the basis of race or sex, and after the plaintiff’s lawyer challenged three white males in a row, the defense lawyer objected. The plaintiff’s lawyer admitted he didn’t want white men on the jury, and the judge decided that the appropriate remedy was to seat the first white male the lawyer had stricken—Judge Silberman.
Silberman hid his profession from the other jurors because he didn’t want them to depend on him to decide the case.
CNN anchor and Bethesda resident Wolf Blitzer also fulfilled his civic duty. He was selected for a Montgomery County jury in a drunk-driving case against a man who had crashed his car through the window of a 7-Eleven. Though the judge and lawyers recognized Blitzer from television, they didn’t have any qualms about putting him on the jury. The judge’s daughter had been one of Blitzer’s interns at CNN, a fact that Blitzer immediately disclosed.
Blitzer says the prosecution was unable to prove that the man had driven through the window because he was drunk and not just because it was raining and slippery on the pavement, so he was acquitted.
What does it take to get out of jury duty? Lobbyist Tony Podesta seems to have the secret recipe. He was once a prosecutor in the DC US Attorney’s office, which means that defense lawyers never want him on a jury. He also used to be the deputy publisher of Rolling Stone, and the magazine’s “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” image, says Podesta, has gotten him stricken by prosecutors: “Every couple or three or four years, I get called. You go down there and know that no one is going to want you.”
This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.