Volume 17 • Issue 10 / July 30 - August 05, 2004

Civics, humor and a little jury romance

By Maria Ma

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Walter Schretzman working at the 111 Centre St. courthouse, his temporary assignment while the jury room he runs at 100 Centre is being renovated. He met his girlfriend while she was on jury duty.

Several times a week, Walter Schretzman does his best song-and-dance for a captive audience that would rather, frankly, be anywhere else.

But still they come — Wall Street titans, deli workers, scruffy-haired hipsters — because the penalty for skipping jury duty is a stiff fine and a judicial hearing.

“They have to do their bit,” says Schretzman, 50, a clerk at the New York County Court House’s Jury Division at 100 Centre St., where most weekday mornings, up to 125 prospective jurors from Manhattan and Roosevelt Island report for service.

He does his bit too: after collecting jury summonses from these new initiates one recent morning, many stony-faced and armed with coffee and reading material, Schretzman exhorts everyone to “at least pretend to pay attention for the next few minutes,” then launches into a 20-minute spiel on civic participation, the American judicial system and restroom locations.

The assembled jurors are treated to such tips as don’t argue with the judge; don’t take six-hour breaks; it’s okay to eat in the jury room no matter what the sign says; and don’t come to the back office and wake everybody up to tell us you can’t serve because of your occupation.

The monologue is equal parts lecture and plea, but thanks to Schretzman’s booming voice, wit and sense of comic timing, the mood in the jury room has lightened somewhat. There are fewer sighs, and even some tentative smiles and a few grins.
“I try to make them chuckle, but I also try to remind them that we’re here to get justice through reasoning together, to preserve civilization against anarchic impulses,” Schretzman says, though he also admits, “I don’t know if they’re really won over or not.”

And yet, these people are the ones obeying the law, and they’re in the minority. Up to 65 percent of city residents summoned for jury duty ignore their notices, though it’s a marked improvement over the statistics of a decade ago, when roughly 85 percent were scofflaws.

Reforms passed in 1998 have contributed to the increased response rate. These include summoning residents for service once every four years instead of two; establishing more stringent punitive measures against those who flout their jury service; raising juror pay from $15 to $40 per day; and eliminating automatic exemptions for occupations such as lawyers, nurses and podiatrists.

For those who do show up to perform their civic duty, Schretzman, a tall, silver-haired ex-court officer with the rangy build of a long-distance runner, tries to minimize their pain and suffering, even for the ones with an attitude. He says that even now, in his eleventh year on the job, he still enjoys meeting people. In fact, he met his girlfriend, a classical musician, while she was serving on a jury.

He recalled seeing her outside by a lunch stand. “She smiled, I smiled, and I’ve been smiling ever since,” Schretzman says.

The dozens of autographed headshot photographs hanging in his office – some depicting the truly famous, others of unknowns with lofty aspirations – are testament to the egalitarian nature of the city’s jury selection process. Gwyneth Paltrow, Tricia Nixon and Philip Glass have all performed their civic duty here.

“Everyone gets equal treatment,” Schretzman says. “I’m a democrat, so I’m excited to meet everyone.”

But why does he have a signed photo of the Muppets?

Schretzman shrugs. “They showed up, but they were disqualified from serving due to being non-human,” he deadpans.

Though Schretzman believes that jury duty is each citizen’s sacred responsibility, this view is not always shared in the jury room, where requests for postponements and exemptions are common. Although the city allows each resident one automatic postponement, subsequent ones and exemptions are rarely granted, except on the grounds of medical infirmity or severe financial hardship.

Schretzman, who has heard it all, claims that, “New Yorkers aren’t that creative with their excuses. It’s usually something like, ‘a close relative is about to enter the next world,’ or ‘I’m losing $1000 a day just by being here.’”

For them, he has a ready reply.

“I say, ‘you’re an American. It’s not always easy.’”

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