People often tell me about the jury summons they received or their experiences serving as a juror, usually with a groan. If they’ve been summonsed, they want to get out of it, and if they’ve been called to serve in the past, many express relief that the case was resolved before trial or that they weren’t selected and got to go home after a few hours.
I’ve never served on a jury myself, and I probably never will now that I’m a lawyer. Most American adults, in fact, will not be called for jury duty. According to one source, less than a third of American adults have ever served on a jury, and the number of federal jury trials is declining.
I have, however, worked in several courts and sat through a number of jury trials. In this post, I hope to demystify jury duty and maybe even convince you to be excited about your next jury summons. My discussion will mostly center on the federal courts, as each state does things a little differently.
First, a basic protection: Your employer cannot fire you for missing work because of jury duty. Whether you get paid for the time you miss is usually up to your employer, though employees of the federal government and some state governments are covered by laws providing that they will continue to be paid while serving on a jury. If you are summonsed for jury duty in a federal court, the court will pay you $40 per day for your attendance, plus a travel allowance.
You are eligible to serve on a federal jury if you:
- Are at least 18 years old, a U.S. citizen, and have lived in the judicial district for at least one year;
- Can read, write, and understand English;
- Can speak English;
- Do not suffer from a mental or physical infirmity that would prevent you from satisfactorily serving as a juror; and
- Do not have a pending felony charge and have not been convicted of a felony, unless your civil rights have been restored.
However, you cannot serve on a federal jury if you are a member of the armed forces on active duty, a member of a professional fire department or police department, or a full-time public officer of a federal, state, or local government.
The judge of the court in which you are called to report might excuse you from jury duty for other reasons — for instance, if you own a business and there is no one else who can run the business while you serve on a jury, or if you are the sole caretaker for a family member with special needs — but such decisions are left entirely to the discretion of the judge.
At the beginning of a trial, the judge and/or lawyers for the parties ask the jury panel a series of questions. This process is called voir dire. The purpose of these questions is to determine whether each juror can be fair and impartial. Based on the answers to these questions, the lawyers, litigants, and judge will assemble the actual jury that will decide a case, which could consist of anywhere from six to twelve jurors, depending on the type of case and the court.
Once the jury is selected, the judge will give some initial instructions to the jury, and then the lawyers will present opening statements. The jury will hear from witnesses for the plaintiff or prosecution, followed by witnesses for the defense, and concluding with closing arguments by the lawyers. The judge will explain the applicable law to the jurors, who will then deliberate to try to reach a verdict. The jury is charged with deciding the facts; jurors do not decide the law (the legislature and courts do that).
Before beginning voir dire, jurors take an oath to tell the truth, similar to the oath taken by witnesses. It is, therefore, a bad idea to lie or make up an excuse for why you can’t serve on a jury; perjury, after all, is a crime. Aside from that, though, there are good reasons for reporting to court when you are summonsed and faithfully participating in the jury selection process.
While many countries guarantee trial by jury in serious criminal cases, the United States is unique in its constitutional guarantee of trial by jury in most federal civil cases, as well as a right to a jury trial under state law in most states. In other countries, civil disputes are typically decided by judges. But our founding fathers thought it was important for the rights and responsibilities of litigants to be decided by their fellow citizens.
Yes, trials can sometimes be boring, lengthy, complex, and inconvenient to jurors. Jury service, though, is one of the best ways to take part in democracy. The case you hear is incredibly important to the parties, whether they are individuals or large companies. They have put a great deal of time, money, and effort into preparing for trial because they care about the rights and duties at stake. As a juror, you get to decide what happened, which witnesses were truthful and which ones were not, and what the outcome of the case will be. You get to decide whether a person has committed a crime for which he or she should be punished, or whether one party has injured another party and should be required to compensate them for their loss.
Serving on a jury allows you to be part of the decision-making process in our society. You may not feel like you have much impact on the operation of government, but you can play a key role in the administration of justice. Often, the rights at stake are those of people living in your own community. As a member of that same community, you are one of the best people to judge what happened, what a person may have been thinking, and who is most credible. In a world where many people feel like they have little influence, serving on a jury and working with your fellow citizens to decide a case is a powerful and meaningful task.
So the next time you receive notice that you’ve been called for jury duty, I hope you’ll view that duty not as an unwelcome chore, but as a privilege.
Have you served on a jury? What did you learn from the process?
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LEGAL DISCLAIMER: I am required by law to inform you that this website is an advertisement and is not intended as legal advice. This website is intended for informational purposes only. I do not currently represent clients and cannot represent you. If you are confronting a legal issue, you should seek the advice of a licensed attorney.