Noe Valley Voice February 2008

Florence's Family Album: A View from the Jury Box

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

Editor's Note: Writer and illustrator Florence Holub first penned this essay in October 1992, when jury duty was quite a bit more relaxed than it is today.

When Superior Court beckons, San Francisco voters had better respond obediently, or else be prepared to plead a case of extreme hardship.

I was first summoned for jury duty when my children were small, and on the third call I marched down to City Hall as mad as a hornet, demanding to know if they expected me to leave my young sons unsupervised. The sympathetic clerk told me that he would take care of it, and he certainly must have, because I didn't hear from the court again until last month. (My little ones are now middle-aged!)

So on a recent Monday morning I got in line with a couple of hundred other potential jurors outside the jury assembly room, to be registered and assigned to a court. The Superior Court waiting room at City Hall has been greatly improved since my last visit, even boasting a television set to enhance the waiting.

Eventually we were assigned to different groups, and each group was sent to one of the courts on the fourth floor. The groups were labeled by color--my group was "Rose," and the court of Judge Cahill was our destination. I never made it into the jury box, however, because one of the lawyers quickly dismissed me for undisclosed reasons. I was sent home to be on telephone standby.

Two days later, I received a call. The leftover Roses (and Silvers, and a few other colors) were being directed to the court of Judge Carlos Bea, whose stock of jurors had been drained, as one person after another asked to be excused. The case of the preceding days had just been settled out of court, but a class-action asbestos suit was about to replace it. After a 30-minute wait in the courtroom, we were told that this case had also been settled, but that another litigation would require our attention.

The Madam County Clerk administered the oath "to tell the truth and nothing but the truth" to everyone in the room. One well-dressed young man refused to do so, and when asked why, responded by saying, "I deserve the right to give false and improper information." He was invited into the judge's chambers, along with a lady who had been holding a gurgling and cooing baby all morning. The rest of us took a break, and when we returned, the three of them were no longer among us.

Because the new case was complicated and would last for an estimated three weeks, the judge took three hours to hear the many financial hardship pleas from potential jurors. While we waited, Frieda--another Rose person--and I decided to check out the other courtrooms. Before doing so, we carried on a lively discussion concerning the pros and cons of jury duty. I felt that I was paying my dues to society, but Frieda, who had been called too often for her taste, complained that she was being overcharged and overworked.

We postponed our debate as we explored, and discovered that all the courtrooms looked the same except for two, which had original paintings on the walls. In Room 402, a brilliant modern abstraction in tones of red was an enlivening contrast to the sad and muted interior. Room 472 contained a large, somber, and mysterious canvas that held our attention for a short time, but as we left, we were arrested by a second painting, belonging to the San Francisco Arts Commission, which depicted a larger-than-life, perfectly rendered likeness of a mounted policeman, and bore the signature of Noe Valley artist Mark Adams. [Following an illustrious career, Adams died in early 2006, at the age of 80. --Ed.]

We then decided to inspect the enormous excavation made to accommodate the new library on the other side of Civic Center Plaza, and then to visit the old public library, where we could view the old-fashioned but poetic murals of another age, by Gottardo Piazonni and Frank DuMond.

After that, we lunched leisurely at the cafeteria of the Hastings School of Law nearby, where contemporary art is also exhibited. Here we found another creation by Mark Adams, this time in poster form--a Museum of Modern Art reproduction in rich reds titled "A Bowl of Borscht," which made our mouths water. I was struck by Adams' versatility, as I recalled his magnificent tapestry on exhibit at the de Young Museum, which featured a large lotus.

As we ambled back toward the court, we joined a spirited demonstration that was being held in the hope of restoring the state budget for programs for the disabled. We knew that the voices of City Hall demonstrators often wafted through the courtrooms. A few days earlier, we had listened to the chanting of those fighting to save the jobs of the janitorial union. We also heard from another group, shouting "Free Mary Jane!" in support of the little old lady who had been charged with baking cookies laced with marijuana, to ease the pain of the terminally ill.

Before our court case could proceed, all of the prospective jurors had to be questioned--first by the judge and then by all of the lawyers--to make sure they would be impartial. Frieda, who was determined to wriggle out of the whole thing, used every ploy that she could muster.

She raised her hand whenever a hint of an escape appeared. Seniors are exempt from jury duty, she ventured only to be informed that she was mistaken. She was a lawyer's wife, she declared, and as such should be disqualified. Good try, but not so.

And when the judge read off a list of witnesses and asked if anyone was acquainted with them or with any of the lawyers, up shot Frieda's hand. Further questioning, however, revealed that the witness had only sat on a panel of the book club that Frieda belonged to. Judge Bea asked her, "Do you think that I would believe that this could influence your judgment?"

"I was hoping so," Frieda blurted out. And everyone laughed at her honesty.

On that same day, Frieda was placed on the alternate row, and I was bounced over her to a seat on the jury. As I sat there, one of the lawyers called out Frieda's name, saying, "Mrs. T., I will excuse you because I think you have it coming to you!"

Everyone roared again, but the happiest person was Frieda, who triumphantly strode out of the courtroom.

We really missed her, but in the weeks that followed, we jurors who were thrown together almost at random turned out to be a friendly mixture. One young lady, Martha, lived in Noe Valley and read the Voice regularly, she said. Bill, who sat next to me, noticed my doodling and suggested the title for this article.

Because of the surroundings, several of us recalled our impressions of the mayor during whose tenure our City Hall was built. While taking in the beautiful detail of the fine civic building, we couldn't help but note the large Roman letters at the base of the cupola: "JAMES ROLPH JUNIOR," who served at the helm of San Francisco from 1912 to 1931.

Those years brought back fond memories to one couple on the jury. Al, who sat behind me, lived near the Civic Center as a boy. He often sailed paper airplanes down into the City Hall rotunda, and he kept track of the mayor's schedule, so that he would be present whenever "Sunny Jim" entered or left his office. Mayor Rolph had the habit of giving a quarter, which was a lot of money then, to any little boy he encountered. Little girls weren't neglected either. Another fellow juror, Jean, remembered how her father took her downtown so that she could meet the great man. She still remembers his smiling face.

And every day after jury duty, as I rode home on the J-car, I thought of what Helen Hughes Helfrich, my next-door neighbor for 25 years, had told me. She enjoyed remembering her first trip on the J-line after its completion. Her father took her, but it was Mayor Rolph who held her at the front of the car to the end of the line. Everyone loved "Sunny Jim," Noe Valley's favorite son! They just don't make mayors like that anymore.

At the end of each day in court, the judge admonished us not to speak or communicate in any way concerning the case, at risk of prosecution! And several weeks later, my lips are still sealed.

However, I think it is now permissible to mention that on more than one occasion, I heard a snore coming from someone seated behind me on the jury. Thank goodness for the interruption, though--it woke me up!