By: Matthew J. Healy
The official envelope greets you from your mailbox -“SUMMONS FOR JURY SERVICE.”To you, a summons may invoke more questions than answers. Recently, since the George Ryan trial, there has been a focus in the media on jury service. Your initial reaction may be “How do I get out of this?” This is a common reaction. I challenge you to overcome it. Putting aside the fact that disregarding a summons can be a serious matter, consider why jury duty is necessary.
Serving as a juror is a fundamental civic responsibility. When you are sworn in as a juror, you become a temporary officer of the court, a tradition that goes back 800 years to the Magna Carta. Thomas Jefferson said that the jury system is the best line of defense against tyranny and more precious to democracy than even the right to vote. A vital purpose of the jury system is to subject our laws to democratic interpretation by drawing upon the values and common sense of the people. The citizen jury is what sets us apart from the rest of the world.
A juror’s responsibility is a near-sacred one: to dispense justice fairly. The statue of Lady Justice, the Greek Goddess holding the scales of justice, has a blind fold over her eyes. It symbolizes blind justice. Whether you’re a large corporation, a powerful individual, an accused, or everyday folk, everyone is treated fairly and the same under the law.
At the very least, jury duty is a rare opportunity to witness the real life operations of a court.
If you have to report for jury duty, you will be required to show up at the courthouse in the morning. You will be given an orientation covering the theoretical (such as juries have a constitutional role in protecting the people from the power of the government) and the practical (such as your boss can’t fire you because you’re on jury duty).
Next, you will be brought into a courtroom. The judge will ask if anyone has a compelling problem that will keep them from serving. If you have a legitimate reason such as compelling work, medical or family care responsibilities, you likely will be relieved of jury duty. People offering excuses will be asked to speak with the judge, lawyers, and/or court employee. This may be done in private or in open court. You will then either be relieved of jury duty or told to return to your seat.
Next, you will be sworn to tell the truth and answer questions, or “voir dire” (literally “to speak the truth”). The judge and lawyers will question you in open court. The questions are not meant to embarrass or pry, but rather to afford the lawyers some insight as to your beliefs. The judge will instruct you to be candid and that you need not be afraid.
Voir dire questions are also designed to reveal any conflicts of interest you may have in judging a particular case. For instance, if the case is about an allegedly defective product, the court wants to make sure you’re not a manufacturer who is too biased to judge the case fairly. You can expect questions about your job, friendships and family.
The judge will determine which jurors will be excused “for cause,” which means they have a legitimate conflict. Attorneys are allowed to excuse potential jurors using a limited number of “peremptory challenges,” which can be used against a juror for any reason. Each party uses them to discard jurors that will be too detrimental to its side. In the end, twelve jurors and a number of alternate jurors will be selected. People who were not selected as a juror or an alternate will be excused. The excused will return to the jury pool room and may be assigned to another courtroom or be dismissed for the day.
For a typical trial, a jury is expected to be in court each day for about eight hours. A juror can get a certificate of attendance each day if an employer requires it. The Court does modestly compensate jurors with around $15 – $40 per day, depending on the jurisdiction. The law does not require an employer to pay you while you are serving. The law does require that your job be protected while you serve. Some employers will continue to pay a juror’s full salary while they serve, others will pay full salary less the Court’s compensation, while other employers won’t pay you at all while you are on jury duty.
Finally, the judge will give the selected jurors some procedural instructions. The stage is now set for trial.