Right around lunchtime in Uptown, you’re likely to bump into Commissioner of Jurors Paul T. O’Neill. You’re always in for a rosy exchange of pleasant schmooze, clever wit and perhaps some smart snark if you’re so inclined. O’Neill is seamlessly cordial and polished, always quick to hold the door. He is a constant in the Uptown community mosaic, and greets everyone by name as though he is the day’s host. Get this man going on local history and he’s all business. Though it’s highly unlikely one would ever refer to him as old-fashioned, he’s something like an image torn from history pages. Squint and you can practically see this young attorney clad in a black wool Chesterfield coat in the early half of the last century, passionately arguing points of constitutional law in the marble hallways of the county courthouse. Don’t squint too hard at him, however, or you’re likely to be on the receiving end of some flippant sarcasm about the funny look on your face.
Carrie Jones Ross: School?
Paul O’Neill: New Paltz High School, Class of 1987; SUNY Binghamton, political science major, history minor; George Washington University Law School, Class of 1994.
PO: Alexandra, 7.
CJR: Why did you become a lawyer?
PO: I became a lawyer by default. When I was in college I didn’t really know what I wanted to be, I had not really thought about it. When it started coming down to it, I everyone was taking the LSAT and so I took it too, and did very well.
CJR: What the heck does a “commissioner of jurors” even do?
PO: We are responsible for every aspect of jury service in Ulster County, from maintaining our jury pool to qualifying and summoning jurors for service in our courts. At the conclusion of their service, we are responsible for paying the jurors as well as insuring that jurors receive credit for their time here and a six-year exemption from future jury service. Our most significant purpose in my view, however, is helping the jurors to understand the importance of their role in our justice system and how much their efforts are appreciated by both the court system and the community.
CJR: What is the responsibility of a juror?
PO: Jurors are quite simply the backbone of our justice system. The quality-of-life decisions that determine what kind of community we live in are made in our courts, and they’re made by our jurors. Creating a community in which we want to raise our families requires constant effort and we all have to participate. It’s when we serve as jurors that we have the opportunity to mold our community into the place we want it to be.
CJR: How long have you been there?
PO: I’m currently in my fourth year here. Prior to that, I was an attorney with a general practice in Kingston and an assistant district attorney with UlsterCounty for 14 years. I began my career in New Paltz with the firm of Harp & Harp prior to moving my office to Kingston in 1997.
CJR: Once the trial is underway, are you still involved?
PO: We are, but on a lesser extent day-to-day. We try to provide anything the jurors need to make their experience more comfortable and convenient, so we are always available to them. For those jurors serving in our supreme and county courts, I bring them coffee every day and try to be one of the first people they see when they arrive and, hopefully, one of the last people they see when they leave. We also provide the jurors with proof of service forms for their employers as well as pay the jurors for their service while they’re here.
CJR: How often must a citizen be summoned to serve on the jury?
PO: After a juror serves in our county or supreme courts, they are ineligible for six years. In town and village courts, it’s two years.
CJR: Drawing from?
PO: Our source lists for jurors are DMV records, voter registration records, New York State tax return filing records as well as public assistance records. These were designed to be the most inclusive so that our jury pool truly reflects the population of the community at large.
CJR: Penalty for dodging jury service?
PO: The first time someone misses jury duty the penalty is a fine of up to $250 and an order by a state Supreme Court judge to serve on a date certain. If they miss that date, the penalty is a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 30 days in jail. The goal, however, isn’t to penalize anyone but to get everyone to serve when it’s their turn. As we discussed, the role that jurors play in our community and in our justice system is so important and we need everyone’s input for the system to work. We live in a diverse community and it is essential that all of us to contribute our unique perspectives. Jury service is not only a civic obligation but one of our most fundamental rights. Its where all of us, simply by being citizens, have the final say on some of the most important issues we face here in Ulster County.
CJR: What do you say to those who believe juries are made up of fools who could not get out of jury duty?
PO: There are no exceptions to jury service, so everyone has to serve. But for those whose sole intention when they appear for jury service is to avoid selection, I would simply say that they have missed an extremely valuable opportunity. And sadly these tend to be the same people who complain the most about the problems that arise in our community. If you want to make things better, you have to step up and actively work to change things. Jury service is a unique opportunity to have your opinions counted — this is where your voice is heard. If you aren’t willing to be a part of the solution, then you remove your input from the process and have no right to complain with those decisions made by those who are willing to answer the call. We have so much as American citizens and are asked to give so little. I think we sometime forget that.
CJR: What if I really, really want to stay home to break my high score in Wii Ping Pong, errr … I mean, what if I have to work and simply can not get off from work for jury duty? Then what?
PO: You are going to have to serve. But I will schedule you for whatever time works for you. When someone calls and says they cannot serve, we ask when can you serve. Let them tell us when they can serve. I understand how inconvenient it can be, so we will bend over backwards to make it work out for you.
CJR: Tell me about Kingston’s Buried Treasures.
PO: A lecture series that has been going on for almost two years now at the Senate House Museum, and it features prominent individuals and events from Kingston’s past. Kingston has had an extraordinary impact on not only New York State but the United States and people don’t realize it. Many of the subjects who really are international figures, we don’t even know them here, such as George Sharpe, who is in my mind one of the most important people in history, and yet he lived two blocks form here. Ezra Fitch, who founded Abercrombie and Fitch, also lived around the corner from here.
CJR: What’s an example of a subject from the lecture series?
PO: The lecture series features prominent figures from Kingston’s past that have impacted not only our community and New York State, but the nation and world beyond. One such figure was George H. Sharpe, a Kingston resident, attorney and Civil War leader. His contributions through the Ulster 120th Regiment, the formation of the Bureau of Military Information — the first all-source intelligence agency in history — and his role as the officer who paroled Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia after their surrender have made him in my eyes one of the most important people in our country’s history. Walt Witkowski gave a great presentation on George Sharpe and we are so fortunate to have an incredible roster of subjects and presenters to highlight these figures from our past.