Most people hate jury duty. They miss work to sit alongside a few strangers and decide the fate of some poor soul or the righteousness of some civil dispute. The court pays them $15 a day.
But each morning, Judge David Gill is the man who welcomes them to San Diego Superior Court and tries to express the importance of their service. He corrals stragglers by the doorway and shares a recycled story from his 37 years behind the bench.
Gill presides over high-profile criminal cases these days — murders, rapists and sex offenders — but he’s best known for his morning conversations with jurors. At 8 a.m., everyone in the courthouse knows where to find Gill.
On Thursday, I sat down with Gill to talk about those jurors, petty lawyers, a 1935 typewriter and why the public can’t use Twitter in the courtroom. Gill seemed eager to talk and occasionally jumped in before I could even shoot him a question.
People express a lot of animosity toward being a juror…
I’m not naïve enough to think that most people who come for jury duty aren’t thinking about half a dozen reasons they’d be excused and half a dozen other places they’d rather be. They’re in a room with three or four hundred other people and I like to emphasize that each one of them individually is important to our justice system, because we want an incredibly rich mix of life experience, common sense, a sense of what’s reasonable and fair.
When I was on the bench 30 some years ago, it was not nearly as diverse — ethnically, culturally, age-wise. You used to have a lot of categorical exemptions. Doctors were exempt. Attorneys were exempt. Clergymen were exempt. The Legislature and the people involved in the trial court system realized we weren’t getting the cross-section we wanted. We wanted the conscience of the community, the voice of the community sitting on our jury panels.
A few years ago you presided over a trial that looked at the diversity of the jury pool.
Yes. Periodically we get challenges as to the way we assemble the jury pool and that was in a murder case. The main complaint was Hispanics as a cognizable group were so significantly underrepresented that that was of constitutional magnitude. If Hispanics are 36 percent of our population, out of every 100 we’re never going to get 36 Hispanics. The law doesn’t require that but if the underrepresentation is so substantial that may (be a problem).
I think the analysis (completed in 2008) showed that Hispanics were 50 percent underrepresented.
We never contested that they were statistically underrepresented, but to sustain the constitutional challenge, that underrepresentation had to be a direct result of something in the system itself. The system itself had to be flawed to produce that representation.
We can’t have any control over if most of them are unemployed, most of them don’t have transportation or those sorts of societal influences. They just didn’t make a substantial showing that it was something in the system itself that produced that underrepresentation.
Did any changes come out of that analysis of the jury pool?
They redrew some of the lines. If you live in certain part of North County, you go to Vista. If you live out East, you go to El Cajon. If you live down south, you go to Chula Vista.
People when they first filed that challenge got excited, but any system that can’t bear additional scrutiny needs to be scrutinized. No system should be above review and we’re dealing with a dynamic, fluid situation, as mobile as our population is. So it’s good to review every few years either on our own or because we’re responding to a motion. I welcome that.
Earlier this year I wrote about the Census and how our county’s population has changed in the last decade. I’m curious whether you think the court system has moved demographically in sync with the county’s population.
We’ve tried to. I think that’s our obligation, but that’s a slow process. I know a lot of certain groups rely more heavily on public transportation and they don’t have access to public transportation. I know for a lot of people, coming to downtown San Diego itself is a daunting prospect.
If you live up in North County or out east, unless you have a reason to come downtown, you don’t come downtown. When you do, you find out that you got to pay $20 to park when we’re paying you $15 a day — if you can find a parking place! We try to be sensitive to those concerns.
I assume you’re doing criminal law these days? (His courtroom is located where criminal cases are tried.)
I’m the senior judge by about nine years, and I could be over in the Hall of Justice, in one of those nice (civil) courtrooms, with that view and everything, but sort of by choice I’ve stayed on the criminal side.
Why do you like criminal law better?
It’s a perverse streak in me, I don’t know. The human drama, the human dynamics that are involved in criminal cases are just more interesting to me. Companies fighting over money, corporations fighting over money or even people fighting over money; money brings out the worst in people sometimes.
There’s a much higher level of collegiality among the criminal bar than the civil side. It’s a closer knit, smaller community on the criminal side. District attorneys and public defenders have to work with each other. And so you can’t afford to get on the district attorney’s bad side because they can make it miserable for you.
I think that brings out a different kind of advocacy. You can fight and be a vigorous, effective advocate for your client, but then you leave that here in the courtroom. On the civil side they apparently don’t do that and there’s a lot of pettiness that goes on outside the courtroom and personal attacks. Oh, where did you go to law school? Well I wouldn’t have any patience for that.
Aside from your juror speeches, you’re renowned as no fan of computers. Why is that?
(Laughing) I don’t know. It’s some psychological block on my part. I use a 1935 manual typewriter. At the time of Y2K, I said my typewriter wasn’t affected. When the power goes out around here, people come and want to use my typewriter.
Do you type your decisions on a typewriter then?
I type a lot of drafts and then the judicial secretaries make the final copy. My wife kids me about that, because she’s a university math professor and has taught a couple of the (computer) programs. She uses a computer all the time and teaches online now.
Are you familiar with Twitter?
No. I know there is such a thing.
It’s a program that allows people to send out public messages to anyone that follows them. Some people have it on their cell phones.
Now that’s been a major change in the courtroom. (Gill explains as if talking to a juror.) I know it’s part of your daily lives to use your fingertips, literally, to inquire of a virtually infinite universe of information. And that’s fine as far as your daily lives, but here you cannot do that. We’re never going to answer all your questions, and you’re dealing with a closed universe here.
The general public isn’t normally allowed to use cell phones for Twitter or texting in the courtroom. What’s the rationale behind that?
Potential mischief I suppose. Witnesses are generally excluded from the courtroom. They’re not allowed in before they testify. Well, the defendant has a friend inside the courtroom and a witness outside, and they’re texting each other. Our focus is to preserve the integrity of the process here.
Probably the members of the public who are here have a dog in the fight. We have a few court watchers, but you don’t see many of them anymore. We used to have some real characters — Maureen O’Connor’s dad. He was one of the great court watchers, but generally people who are here have someone in the fight.
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