By Judge Jeffrey Bennett
“Call the next name madam clerk,” the judge said. The court clerk announced in a soft voice, “Jeffrey Bennett, J-E-F-F-R-E-Y B-E-N-NE-T-T.” I stood and walked to my seat in the jury box, wondering how this would work out and what obstacles I might face as a potential juror in an alleged murder case.
I am a judge of the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Ventura. I have presided over nearly one hundred criminal jury trials in the Ventura courthouse and in my previous career as Chief Deputy District Attorney, litigated hundreds more on behalf of the people. Was I surprised to be there? Not really, because I know we all have a duty and obligation to serve as jurors whenever called upon to do so. Judges are not exempt from jury service.
As a judge, I regularly inform jurors of their service obligation and its importance, while noting the right of the public to decide what happened in any case is one of our greatest rights as American citizens. Most countries in the world do not have jury trials in criminal cases. In my mind, the right to a jury trial and the obligation to be a juror are a huge part of what makesAmerica great. About thirty times each year, when greeting potential jurors and in every jury trial I have conducted, I remind jurors of their responsibility to serve and the importance of the jury trial process. I have never, until now, thought I would have to remind myself of these responsibilities.
Like most people who receive a jury summons, I responded promptly by selecting a week for my service which I thought wouldbest for my family and me, and at a time when I thought my “one day” of service would have the least impact on my court. I care about the impact of my absence on the court, because the volume of court business these days requires a maximum effort by all judges every day. Someone has to do all the work, and if I am not there, even one day, the work would pile up even more.
A few weeks after sending in my response I was ordered to appear for jury service on a Monday. Like any other juror I went to jury services, listened to the presentation by a judge and handed in my paperwork. While waiting to be called, I returned to my courtroom and continued to work. Half way through the day, Jury Services called and said I was to report. I made the appropriate arrangements to cover my calendar and walked to Courtroom 45 on the fourth floor. Waiting in the hallway with dozens of other people wearing juror badges was a good experience, but very strange for me. Though I looked like everyone else, nervously pondering what would happen when we entered the court, I had a secret none of them knew – one which I could not share with them at this time. While I was proud to be there with my fellow citizens, I knew this process would surely become complicated as a result of my appearance in court as a juror.
Once inside the courtroom, the trial judge made the usual general announcements about the attorneys, the type of trial and its expected time estimate. The attorneys in the case both looked at me, acknowledging my presence. I knew them both well and I have great respect for each of them. The judge then told the 88 people seated in court, “so, after hearing all that, please raise your hand if you can serve in this case.”
I was seated in the front row, directly behind the attorneys, right in front of the judge. I raised my hand high and held it up straight. I didn’t want there to be any doubt about my willingness and ability to serve. Of course I could serve; I couldn’t ask thousands of others to serve and try to avoid it myself.
Many of my fellow jurors also raised their hands, ready to do their duty. The judge announced, “Those of you who have raised yours hands, please step forward, state your name clearly, and we will give each of you a questionnaire to fill out. Go back to jury services, fill out the questionnaire, leave it at the jury services office and return here on Wednesday at one o’clock, ok?” I stood up first, “Jeffrey Bennett” I stated in a loud and commanding voice. My questionnaire in hand, I returned to jury services, and finished my service for the day.
I returned to court as ordered on Wednesday, precisely at 1:30. The proceedings started late, as they often do, and jury selection (voir dire) filled the remainder of the afternoon. Jurors were questioned, comments were made, the attorneys met with the judge at the bench several times. Things went as they do in a jury trial – I just happened to know that…
The following day, after more questions, juror responses, and people being excused, one spot remained to be filled in this case. My name was called and I was questioned. While I had participated up to this point with some sense of anonymity, everyone in the courtroom was stunned when the defense attorney said, “well, good morning, er ah, your honor sir.” The courtroom stirred, as if something very unusual had happened. Now all my fellow jurors knew who I was and what I do – a judge. A woman in front of me in the jury box turned around, looked at me and mouthed the words, “you’re a judge….oh my god” with a smile. I answered his questions and those of the court honestly. I am fair; I am impartial; I will follow the law; I do not know the defendant here and I am ready to serve as needed. Of course I am fair, that is what the voters elected me to do every day in this courthouse.
Both counsel stated I was fair and impartial. The attorneys accepted the panel and my fellow jurors and I took the juror’s oath. I am always a judge, but today I am a juror and proud of my responsibility.
Nb: On Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at 10:25 am, after opening statements and one full day of witness testimony, Judge Bennett was excused from the trial by the judge and a joint stipulation of the parties in open court. He
returned to his duties calling the calendar in Courtroom 11 shortly thereafter.
Judge Jeffrey Bennett was elected to the Superior Court in June 2008. He took office on January 5, 2009, after serving twenty years in the Ventura County District Attorney’s office as a Trial Deputy, Chief Investigator and Chief Deputy. Judge Bennett is also a retired law enforcement officer. He lives in Ojai with his wife Diana and two daughters. Judge Bennett currently presides over the misdemeanor arraignment calendar in the court criminal division.