Weston Voices: Jury Commissioner Pam Wood
Weston is home to many residents who have important jobs, roles, and interests. While the names of many are immediately familiar (the former resident just named to the Hall of Fame has pretty good recognition), some have names that make you think “huh, where have I seen that name before?”
Pam Wood is one who falls into the latter camp–and where you may have seen her name is on a little postcard in your maibox. No, she is not one of the 4,000,500,800 real estate agents active in town who want you to know they JUST SOLD a humongous house or 4 of them, and yeah, I’m going to receive hate mail from my friends who are agents. Tough turkey. Back to Pam.
The Owl met Pam in 2015, having just moved to Massachusetts and triggered some jury-calling radar that sent me a jury duty postcard just five minutes after getting my driver license here. (Pam insists on pointing out that unlike other jurisdictions, we don’t create our Master Juror List from voter rolls, driver’s licenses, or any other specialized lists that tend to eliminate marginalized people. We have, and use, the only annual municipal census in the country, which is why our list is considered to be the “gold standard” of jury lists).
At that point, the Owlets were small and when jury duty was required in Somerville, I sent the card back asking nicely for a change of venue to the closer Concord courthouse due to child care issues (Mr. Owl was more in Brazil than the US at that time). My request was granted, and on a thread on a private Wellesley alum page, I mentioned my surprising luck. And Pam immediately commented, saying that this essentially never happens and that she had herself asked for a couple of changes and in spite of being the Jury Commissioner, that never happened. And yes, she has herself been called for jury duty five times – state and federal – though she has never been on a jury on a case that went to trial–see above photo.
Over time we met on a hike, and became friends through the coincidence of our dogs being from the same rescue (that would be Last Hope K9 Rescue which Pam would like to shamelessy plug as she volunteers there…and well, Katie Puppy and Nugget RULE!), and of course we are sister Wellesley alums and fans. Not only is Pam hilarious in person and in writing, I continue to be amused by the fact that in spite of living in Weston since 1989, Pam gets lost in Jericho Woods every single time she goes in it, no matter what kind of map, radar, satellite tracking or cell phone was set up to help find her way. There is only so much Weston Forest & Trail Association can do, you know. While knee replacement has slowed her roll (and the calls for help to me), she’s on her way to full recovery and we were able to take a walk around College Pond earlier this week. Somehow she stil refuses to go into Jericho, even with me.
Owl: What does a jury commissioner do?
Pam: My core mission is to make sure that a diverse and representative group of people show up in the right courthouses, on the right days, in the right numbers, to allow the courts to move cases, either through jury trials or settlements and pleas.
How long have you been the Commissioner and what’s your favorite part of that role?
I was appointed in 2003, so almost 20 years now — definitely the longest-serving commissioner (and the only woman) since the office was created in 1979. My favorite part is being able to have a big impact on innovating and improving one of the most important parts of the justice system, and advocating for all of the citizens who take part in it. Right now, for me, that means being a part of approximately 14,000 committees and groups that are laser-focused on ways to maximize the inclusivity and fairness of the MA jury system, which for a variety of reasons that I could fill a year’s worth of Weston Owls with, is probably the most inclusive and fairest jury system in the country (and thus the world, since we have the most robust jury system in the world). Also, I work with a tremendous group of dedicated, smart, skilled people.
Most folks hate jury service though some of us pretend to dislike it but actually enjoy it (the Owl!). How do you think people should think about that little postcard in the mail?
Well, if they’re like me (and apparently the Owl), they whoop out loud with delight when they clean out their mailbox and realize what they’re holding. Right there in their driveways. Scaring the horses, small children, and any neighbors who happen to be passing by.
But barring that, they should think “Cool! This could be interesting — and if I’m lucky enough to get on a jury, I could join the tens of thousands of MA citizens every year who have what may be the most empowering experience of their lives. At the very least, I’ll get a day off work on my employer’s dime, or a day to myself to read a book, play games on my cell phone, or doze quietly in the jury pool room.” I have a friend who refers to her time at the Newton District Court as “spa court” because it’s a nice facility with very friendly staff and she was so grateful to have a quiet day to herself.
Also, as we tell the irate out-of-state parents who can’t believe their MA college students have to perform jury service in MA — if your kid got mixed up in something and needed a jury trial, wouldn’t you want a diverse group of committed, engaged citizens there to hear his or her side of the story and decide what should happen? Step up, people. This is government by the people. Literally. You’re doing what a judge would do if we didn’t have juries.
How did the pandemic change how you do your job? How long were jury trials shut down for during the pandemic? Were any of those trials moved to judges rather than jury?
Since the start of the pandemic, our team of court leaders have been consulting with experts, reviewing daily COVID reports, and meeting weekly to assess the current risk levels associated with bringing jurors and others into the courthouse. We suspended juries in mid-March 2020 and spent the next 9 months evaluating ventilation systems, installing air purifiers, establishing occupancy limits, reconfiguring courthouses to keep people 6′ apart, and setting up offsite locations for counties whose courthouses couldn’t meet safety standards — Lombardo’s in Norfolk County (“Prom Court”), the Eastfield Cinemas in Hampden County (“Movie Court”), the Cape Codder in Barnstable County (“Resort Court”), and the Holiday Inn in Berkshire County (fill in the blank), among others.
Defendants and civil parties always have the right to a bench trial (judge rather than jury), but a lot of courts were closed to the public for a long period of time. We did do one civil jury trial on Zoom by agreement of the parties, but it’s pretty resource-intensive to pull it off, and there’s a lot that could go wrong. We resumed in-person jury trials in January 2021.
I understand that the courts have recently shut again due to Omicron. What was your role in keeping jurors/judges and others safe?
As the threat from Omicron started spiking in December, my focus was on keeping the safety of the jurors on the front burner with a group of decision-makers who also had to evaluate constitutional rights of defendants, safety of court staff, speedy trial issues, case backlogs, and many other issues. But jurors haven’t chosen to be part of the justice system, we don’t know their vaccination status, their risk factors or the vulnerability of their household members, how they spent their holidays or how they’re getting to the courthouse (public transportation? rideshare?) — they’re really the most at-risk group of people in the justice system, and also present the biggest risk to the others in the building. So it seemed the right thing to do to “hit a pause” which the jury trials are doing until February 14–and yes, Happy Valentine’s Day if you get called for that week!
You were on the board of Merriam Village. What did you enjoy about that role?
I served on the Merriam Village Board for about 15 years, and stepped down at the end of 2019. The story of MV could fill another year’s worth of Owl Reports…. I really loved working to preserve an incredibly unique housing resource for elders like our librarians, my mother (who passed while preparing to relocate to MV from West Hartford, CT), local residents, WWII vets…. they run the gamut.
The creation of MV is an inspirational tale of dedicated Westonians acting locally in the face of short-sighted recalcitrance to develop affordable housing in town for the people who live here, work here, and need options in the face of skyrocketing housing costs and the McMansionization of what was a rural farming community just a few generations ago — certainly during my lifetime.
What’s your favorite conservation woods and why? How do you feel about Jericho Woods? Be honest.
I’d probably have to go with College Pond, although I used to love Cat Rock before it became the site of so much controversy over parking, resident stickers, and dog poop. College Pond has something for everyone — a walk around the pond, the mysterious troll bridge in the woods, expansive fields and a back entrance off Juniper, the orchard where we took our first family dog for one last ramble on our way to the vet the day after Christmas and the tree where I saw my first bluebirds. And thanks to the Owl, I now know the location and history of the Merriam Barn, too. College Pond is very close to Jericho, though — and as you know, I’m a-feered of those woods.