Juror No. 2 shares his view

The Linn County Courthouse on May's Island in downtown Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 28, 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Linn County Courthouse on May's Island in downtown Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 28, 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

One corner of our great system of self-governance remains functional in our dysfunctional times. This I can report firsthand.

I was picked for jury duty this past week. It was a surprise, given the folklore in my profession that lawyers rarely want journalists on juries. I’ve seen many exceptions to the rule, which always struck me as odd. Having spent much of my life sitting in ornate rooms, in uncomfortable chairs, listening to people argue and explain while taking copious notes, I’m perfectly suited for jury service.

So I reported to the Linn County Courthouse basement with many others plucked from their normal lives to await their fate. Soon, we were treated to a video double feature.

The first film starred former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Linda Neuman and Court of Appeals Senior Judge Robert Mahan. They explained the jury process. Four stars.

The second feature was “Tooth Fairy,” staring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Ashley Judd. They gave us something to watch while we waited.

How did it end? Who knows? Because soon we were on our way to a fourth-floor courtroom.

That’s where a nine-member jury, eight jurors, one alternate, would be selected to decide a civil case pitting Jacob Pipkin vs. Pamela Hester and Randall D. Rohrer. District Court Judge Sean McPartland presiding.

Pipkin bought a Cedar Rapids home from the defendants in April 2015 and sued to recover the cost of repairing and mitigating basement water damage to the tune of $8,500. On the seller’s disclosure form, where it asks about basement seepage, the defendants checked “unknown” and noted some front yard tiling. Pipkin argued they omitted disclosure of water issues on purpose, and even tried to paint over signs of damage. The defense rejected those claims.

OK, not exactly a landmark case. Unless it’s your money.

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I was not among 17 potential jurors initially picked for questioning by attorneys, so I figured I was home free. But soon, one of those 17 said he knew one of the witnesses. He was out. My name was called.

We were asked about our experiences with homebuying, basement water and something called Orangeburg pipe. It’s apparently pipe made from pressed tar-paper like materials used in homes built back in the day. If I learned nothing else in court, it’s that you don’t want Orangeburg pipe.

Questioning went on. One more potential juror explained his bad experiences at Super Skate as a kid. Pam Hester apparently runs the joint. He was excused. He, I once fell down, hard, at Super Skate. But I remained silent.

Then came the striking and picking. I still figured I’d get bumped. Instead, I was juror No. 2.

We were a fairly diverse group, five men and four women. There were a couple of young guys, one who worked for a software firm and another who worked third-shift at a warehouse and often wore headphones during breaks. Turns out he was listening to audiobooks.

The jury included a young woman studying at UNI to be a special-education teacher, a retired special education teacher, an older gentleman who worked part-time at a big box retailer and a woman who worked as a supervisor for a local manufacturer. None of us had ever served on a jury. Work schedules were shuffled, classes were skipped, arrangements were made and workouts were missed.

But somebody had to decide this thing. That’s how the system works.

So we heard hours of testimony. We heard from the plaintiff’s plumber uncle, the home inspector, the septic system repair guy and the realtor, who represented both the buyer and seller, among others. The man hired by Jacob Pipkin to fix the basement had to testify through a telephone deposition because he caught influenza A. They read the deposition in the courtroom.

The defendants, who inherited the home after their father died in 2007, said they couldn’t remember any basement water damage after the front yard was tiled around 1980. They even stored antique furniture in the home, including the basement. But just a few days after Pipkin took possession, he found puddles in the basement. We saw the photos. Over and over again.

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Despite testifying they recall no water, they had checked “unknown.” Elsewhere on the seller’s disclosure form, they checked “no” for the presence of Orangeburg pipe in the septic system. Turns out there was Orangeburg pipe.

Pipkin spent $21,500 replacing the system, but sought no damages for that bill.

The home inspector had found “old stains” from basement water. The basement guy with the flu testified the water Pipkin found came from the walls and was no one-time problem. The basement, he said, certainly had been wet before.

The plaintiff’s attorney hammered home the idea the defendants had tried to paint over signs of damage. He called it the “smoking gun.” The defense attorney called the white paint and Orangeburg pipe “red herrings.” He pointed instead to the old furnace, sitting on the floor, which he said showed no signs of water damage.

Then, they tossed the whole thing to us.

I figured the jury might be split between those of us who figured the defendants purposely fudged the disclosure and those of us who believed they didn’t know about water issues. But in the jury room, we quickly learned nobody believed their story. It was as leaky as the basement. But the plaintiff’s paint theory, based on the photos, did hold water.

We reached a verdict in less than two hours, and awarded the plaintiff $8,500. Several jurors wanted to add some punitive damages to make sure attorney’s fees didn’t eat up the actual damages, so we tacked on $3,000 more.

Unfortunately, there was no courtroom drama. Our verdict was delivered to the judge, who called the attorneys by phone. Bummer.

Otherwise, this small cog in our democratic system worked. People with different backgrounds, ages and experiences were brought together to hear the evidence and render a decision. We didn’t split off into factions and shut the whole thing down. We talked it out and sorted it out.

Of course, not all cases and juries are alike. But most if not all of us came away pleased that we were able to take part.

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And as a juror, you get a glimpse behind the curtain at how many people and how much work it takes to make the judicial system run effectively. Maybe if more state lawmakers served on juries, they’d do a better job providing the level of funding that’s needed to dispense justice in Iowa.

Just this week, lawmakers announced midyear budget cuts that will hit the judicial system hard, possibly forcing the closure of courts in some counties and the elimination of positions. It’s remarkably bad news for our courts and for Iowans seeking justice.

On the bright side, serving with these folks and watching the process play out repaired some of the extensive damage that’s been inflicted on my faith in democratic institutions. Not everything is gridlocked and cringe-worthy. And as a bonus, I spent hours and hours with no access to my phone, the news or the president’s tweets. Pity the trial lasted only three days.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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