Jury duty: Two words that are never spoken without inflection, usually a negative one. The first thought that comes to your mind when you get that notice in the mail might be “How can I get out of this?”
But taking jury duty seriously is actually one of the most important things you can do for your country.
“Apart from voting, jury duty is the most direct way you can impact how your government works, how justice is provided to both victims and perpetrators of crime, how disputes large and small are decided,” said Judge Mary Yunker of the Tenth Judicial District of Minnesota.
Although early versions of the jury existed thousands of years ago, America’s jury system traces its roots back to England. In 1215, English nobles forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, which placed limits on the power of the English monarchy.
“The collective wisdom and experience of a jury (produces) fair and just results,” Yunker said. “Jurors are the voice of reason and community values that those on trial deserve.
“(It’s) the cross-section of our multi-cultural society that ensures that all people are treated fairly, and that justice does not depend on race, financial status, religion, sexual preference, age, gender, cultural heritage or anything else other than what the facts of the case and the law demand.”
There’s no single process for jury duty, so I’ll try to avoid specifics. The exact procedures will vary from state to state, county to county, and federal courts will differ from your state’s courts. However, the broad strokes should be similar.
First, you’ll be notified that you’ve been summoned for jury duty. Mostly, you need to make sure you’re available during that time period.
It’s possible that you won’t even have to report to the courthouse. Cases might be delayed or settled, or you might not be randomly selected from the pool of jurors. If you are summoned, however, you’ll have to report to a courthouse.
When you and your fellow citizens arrive, you’ll be given an orientation before you’re taken into a courtroom for jury selection. During this time, the judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney will ask you and your peers a lot of questions, some of which will be personal or even uncomfortable. The Court will want to know what you do, who you associate with, and what life experiences you’ve had.
“Sometimes a juror’s history on a particular issue will be so overpowering that they would not be able to fairly try a case,” Yunker said.
We’re all colored by our experiences, and the objective is to provide a fair trial for the defendant by seating the most impartial jury possible.
If you’re chosen for the jury, the trial might take a day, or it might take several weeks or longer, depending on the charges and other factors.
Though this part of being a juror is often dramatized on TV, “rarely are jurors sequestered,” Yunker said. “Commonly jurors are on their own during breaks for meals or overnight.”
During that time, don’t research the case or talk to anyone about it. This will ensure that you reach a verdict based only on the evidence presented during the trial.
You’re not stupid. During jury selection, you’ll probably realize which answers would get you off the hook. Resist the temptation and answer truthfully.
First of all, it’s the law, and breaking it can result in warrants, fines or jail time depending on the jurisdiction.
You will be paid a stipend for your service on the jury. It won’t be much, but it’s something.
Your service is protected by law, so your employer can’t hold your absence from work against you.
As a bonus, sitting on a jury is really interesting! It’s a great experience that can teach you a lot about our how our courts and legal system work.
Once you’re in the jury selection process, you probably won’t want to get yourself dismissed on purpose. During my jury experience, one candidate had several traumatic experiences that would have made serving extremely difficult. But she would not let herself off the hook until she was finally dismissed. Once you’re there, you tend to feel a little peer pressure to take it seriously.
Most importantly, it’s your civic responsibility. Our democracy doesn’t work without you.
“If you avoid service, you will be leaving the important decisions jurors make to others, and the challenge to do justice will be that much harder,” Yunker said.
Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator who has taught courses in American history, world history, military history, government and criminal justice and law. He holds master’s degrees in teaching and learning and in history. He has never—never—said “no” to ice cream.