Jury (Is it a Civic) Duty?
July 4, 2002 9:38 AM   Subscribe

Jury (Is it a Civic) Duty? It's Jury Duty time for the bloggers, as I, and several other bloggers have been summoned for service lately. Apparently, it's something you desperately want to do, or would give anything not to do... Have you ever served on a jury? Or better yet, did your excuse to get out of it work or not? Do you know what jury nullification means?... Here in Los Angeles they've been trying to improve the jury selection system with their "One Day, One Trial" program, but I doubt it will ever make everyone happy.
posted by jca (38 comments total)
I was on a jury once in civil case where we awarded a few millions to an industrial accident victim, which felt pretty good. On the other hand, I was in a jury pool for a criminal case, where during jury selection I told the defense lawyer that I felt that committing myself to what he asked the jury to commit to before the trial would tantamount to give away my impartiality. He rejected me pretty fast.
posted by semmi at 10:27 AM on July 4, 2002

Yes I served on a jury. Although the experience wasn't necessarily pleasant, it was extremely educational, and necessary. My jury was the most racially, politically, and socially diverse group in which I have ever participated. I gained insights in the jury room that far transcended the guilt or non-guilt of the defendant. (not guilty-crack distribution btw) Don't squirrel out of jury duty!
posted by quercus at 10:30 AM on July 4, 2002

I think citizens do have a duty to serve in juries. Most of us take the justice system for granted, as we ourselves are never on trial. However, if I found myself accused (falsely or otherwise) of a crime I'd hope my jury would be comprised of individuals who recognized my right to a fair trial, instead of the unlucky blokes who couldn't come up with good excuses and were resentful for having to sit through my trial.

I've never been called for jury duty, but (barring exceptional circumstances) I imagine I'll go when the time comes.
posted by astirling at 10:30 AM on July 4, 2002

When it is time for jury selection, tell the court that after the
suprme Court stole the election you no longer believe in the justice system. This will get you off duty, if that is what you want.
posted by Postroad at 10:35 AM on July 4, 2002

I've only been called for jury duty once, back in 1981. Providentially, I'd just been laid off from work, so I had the time to spare.

It was three weeks of sitting in a room with other potential jurors, waiting to see if we'd be needed. Apparently while we were huddled upstairs, attorneys were down in the courtroom deciding whether or not to go to trial.

We couldn't watch TV or read newspapers, lest we be called to a case that was featured in the news. We had to wear huge, red badges that said JUROR at all times, so any lawyers gossiping in the rest rooms would clam up when then spotted us and we wouldn't hear anything we shouldn't. For entertainment, we had a stack of 10-year-old Reader's Digests, and an assortment of jigsaw puzzles.

During my last week, I was finally called downstairs for voir dire. I was excited, hoping it was a murder trial or some such, but it was a civil case - two accountants suing each other. One of the questions I was asked was "would you be able to pay attention during testimony consisting of long columns of numbers?" I honestly answered that I'd probably doze off, and was excused.

$16 a day, plus 10 cents a mile commuting expense, and a new talent for assembling the outer frame of a jigsaw puzzle...that was my jury duty experience.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:38 AM on July 4, 2002

i served jury duty at a trial that included among it's prospectice jurors. jacquiline onassis kennedy....she was very civic minded, albiet aloof (who can blame her on that one), and she read a book in that sweltering room in nyc, that we the jurors had to sit in.....once i was finally picked for duty....it was mildly interesting......i would do it again....but shudder at the thought of serving on a really long sequestered jury trial.
posted by billybob at 10:48 AM on July 4, 2002

I was on a case of armed robbery, which was perfect as it was interesting but not harrowing (he used a replica gun). He was pretty inept and didn't even bother covering his tracks - he kept the money he'd stolen loose on the floor in the front of his car and the clothes he'd worn and gun he'd used in his wardrobe.

The worst bit was watching the evidence of the bank assistants, all of them young girls, who of course at the time thought the gun was real. Anyway, we all had a good laugh at him till the end of the trial when it was revealed he was a deeply troubled man who had attempted suicide many times.
posted by Summer at 10:50 AM on July 4, 2002

I loved my jury duty experience on a federal case, even though I was chosen as Alternate Juror #2 which meant that I wouldn't get to deliberate unless two of the original jurors dropped out.
I did become a little skeptical about the whole jury process as I would watch a couple of jurors doze off at times during the four-day case.
A big perk for my experience, though, was that I got paid forty dollars a day plus transportation costs. So, I made about $175 at the same time my employer was still paying me for those days off.
posted by scout at 11:05 AM on July 4, 2002

It's Jury Duty time for the bloggers...

I know.(self-link).

My experience was a mite scary. But i still fall on the "yes it's a civic duty" side. We bitch a lot about the justice system here, but it all comes down to trial by jury, so we've gotta do our part, if it's to work.
posted by jonmc at 11:09 AM on July 4, 2002

I go every time I get called for jury duty...but I never actually make it on to a a jury. It's not like I try to get out of it either. Twice I've been told by lawyers that I'm too educated...which makes me a little leery of the system, really. I mean, you would think they'd want someone well educated. Perhaps I should leave the Hume book at home and take a Ladies Home Journal next time...and sneak in under the radar. ;-)
posted by dejah420 at 11:39 AM on July 4, 2002

I've avoided three jury summonses so far. The first time, I was living in Germany, and not exactly about to fly back to California to serve on a jury. Second time, I was working freelance, and two weeks of unpaid vacation would have bankrupted me. Third time was a couple of weeks ago: someone apparently failed to notice that not only do I live over seven hundred miles from the Sacramento court house, but I haven't even lived in the state of California at any time in the last five years...

It's hard to feel a sense of "civic duty" when I know perfectly well that the only way I'll ever get onto a jury is if I try to fool a lawyer into accepting me (and, conversely, that should I ever be unlucky enough to face a jury trial, the folks in the box will be my "peers" only in the loosest sense of the word). A jury summons is an invitation to hang around in the courthouse doing nothing for a few days, and that doesn't sound like any kind of fun.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:01 PM on July 4, 2002

Mars Saxman:

A jury summons is an invitation to hang around in the courthouse doing nothing for a few days, and that doesn't sound like any kind of fun.

It's not supposed to be fun, you idiot. It's your civic duty. There are billions of people on this planet who'd give their left nut to be judged by a jury of their own peers, as opposed to being take out and shot in the head.
posted by mark13 at 12:16 PM on July 4, 2002

I meant "taken" not "take". Damn, I'm a shitty typist!
posted by mark13 at 12:23 PM on July 4, 2002

I received my second summons last week. The first was for service in village court--which, at least in my part of NY, you can't defer for any reason. This was somewhat awkward, as it was in the middle of the semester, but luckily the trial didn't take place. This time, it's for the Rochester city court; they very kindly moved the summons date up a week when I pointed out that it would be difficult for me to attend when I was on the other side of the country.

It used to be that the statement "I'm a professor at X" resulted in instant dismissals, but the experience of my father and several colleagues would seem to suggest that this is no longer the case. In any event, hanging around for jury selection might be a good time to read Sir Charles Grandison or, say, War and Peace.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:25 PM on July 4, 2002

I received my first summons last month. I had never been called before, but I think I got added to the pool when I bought a house.

I was able to call into the court the night before to see what range of potential jurors would be needed (each person was assigned a number). My section was not needed, so I didn't have to go in.

I don't know if this means I'm out of the pool for the rest of the year, or for the rest of the duration of my residence in the county.

Regardless, I was willing to serve.
posted by jazon at 12:43 PM on July 4, 2002

I was on a jury a few years ago, one week into a new job. The case was "disturbing." At first, the judge was lenient in letting off people who would have trouble sitting through some gruesome evidence, but as the pool emptied, and the attornies ran out of challenges, he started getting tougher. We ended up with a jury of smart professionals, which countered the prevailing wisdom that, in Silicon Valley, if you think for a living you'll never make it onto a jury.

We didn't need to be smart. The evidence in the case was overwhelming to the point that we didn't really need to spend an entire day hearing about the DNA evidence. 3 1/2 days of testimony, with frequent breaks, and 1 1/2 days of deliberation, during which we asked to have portions of the testimony re-read and quibbled over some extra findings. Some on the panel were of the opinion that the prosecution saw a slam dunk, and overcharged the accused to keep him off the street for a few more years.

Sitting on a jury was fun to have done once. The process is set up for the court's convenience, so bring a good book.
posted by dws at 1:18 PM on July 4, 2002

I've never been called, but, my husband and father have. Dad was pulled for a murder trial. After watching what he went through, I would never want to be on a jury for that. He still has nightmares from time to time. (The boy/man was found guilty and sentenced to life, he shot his wife at point blank range, after she refused to take him to shoot a drug dealer.)

My husband was pulled for federal jury duty, but, never made it onto a jury. We figured he wouldn't due to his appearance (long hair, pierced septum, long goatee.) He got time off work, paid for by work and by the court system, so, not a bad deal at all.

I do think serving on a jury is a civic duty. If you reap the benefits of living in this society, you should be willing to do your part as well.
posted by SuzySmith at 2:07 PM on July 4, 2002

I keep hearing about all of these people who were sent away to prison for years then later exonerated due to new DNA evidence. In the face of that, I don't know how you can ever get passed reasonable doubt. Despite whatever evidence is presented, I feel like I'd really have to find the person innocent - just in case.

I'd almost rather see the US move towards a judge advocate kind of system if that didn't stand to concentrate way too much power in the hands of the judicial branch.

Are there any other systems out there, or are those basically the only two choices for trying to get to something like a fair trial?
posted by willnot at 2:20 PM on July 4, 2002

mark13: are you actually arguing that it is every citizen's duty to sit around in a courthouse doing nothing while lawyers pick other people to serve on juries, or did you completely miss my point?
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:22 PM on July 4, 2002

I was called for jury duty about 5 years ago (oddly enough, 2 of my friends and one of my coworkers, in an office of 5, were called at the same time). The first week or so was dead boring, but at least I finally got around to reading LotR.

The second week I was a juror on a child rape trial: Mom's boyfriend was the accused. So sad...pretty obvious that the fellow was guilty, but even more than sending him away, I wanted to smack Mom upside the head. :(

I'd go again, if called. (I was also called once to serve in the state I grew up in, after I'd moved. d'oh! after seeing Mars' first comment again: what is it about CA?)
posted by epersonae at 2:24 PM on July 4, 2002

I have been summoned twice, both times in Georgia about three years apart, once in Fulton County (Atlanta) and the other in Dekalb County (the neighboring county east of Fulton). Both experiences were exactly the same. Go in, fill out questionnaire, sit and wait.

Until about 10:30 in both cases, when a clerk entered the pool room and asked all college graduates to line up against the wall. This had the effect of emptying 1/3 of the seats and roughly 90% of all the whites. We were then dismissed.
posted by mischief at 2:47 PM on July 4, 2002

My friend Meep served on jury duty two months ago, and wrote a very interesting, detailed account of her experience in her journal.
posted by isomorphisms at 3:54 PM on July 4, 2002

Would you like to have your guilt assessed by 12 people too dumb to get out of jury service? ;-)

(Never been called, myself)
posted by salmacis at 5:00 PM on July 4, 2002

As responsible citizens of whatever community you live in, I feel that you have a responsibility to do your part to ensure that the wheels of justice run (more or less) true. Although perhaps it is a case of the people who would like to be part of a jury being the ones that shouldn't and vice versa.

Personally, I have been called once, but never participated, although I would be interested to do so. When I was called, my boss offered to write a letter to get me out of it and I declined out of a sense of duty (he wasn't impressed).
posted by dg at 6:02 PM on July 4, 2002

It's not supposed to be fun, you idiot. It's your civic duty.

You know, I don't know if I buy that "taking it for granted" argument. It reminds me of the old (and grossly false) cliche "You don't have a right to complain about X politician or Y election if you didn't vote or aren't registered to vote." (For the record, I believe if you contribute, say, by paying your taxes, or are affected by X or Y's outcome, or, feel like exercising your right to free speech you are more than free to complain at length about X or Y.)

First of all, what right does any one person have to "judge" [cough] another's view on whether it is a civic duty or not? Granted, "because it's not convenient" is no real defense against your argument. But why should I have complete faith in a system that will dismiss me because I have a college education?

As mentioned before, I would want a trial of my peers, but the system tends to weed out the peers, doesn't it?

Anyway, we'll see what happens when I show up for Jury Duty at the end of the month.
posted by jca at 6:54 PM on July 4, 2002

I served on a jury once. For nine, hideously long weeks. It was a civil suit, a guy (the inventor of Chloraseptic!) suing his lawyers for malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty to the tune of about 73 million dollars. The jury basically concluded that the plaintiff was an idiot but that the lawyers he had suing had probably overbilled a bit. So we added up what we thought was the amount overbilled, about 275k, and awarded it to the plaintiff. Naturally, both sides claimed victory. (not exactly resounding when the jury awards ~1/280th of the amount under consideration)

It was a miserable experience. Most of the jurors were thoughtful and respectful (of a case that barely deserved it), though we had one juror who liked to nap while court was in session. We had to sit through incredibly tedious testimony from exciting professionals like accountants.

But all that said, I continue to show up for jury duty. I do see it as an obligation, and our group of jurors seemed about as representative of the mix of folk here in D.C. as I could imagine...
posted by jburka at 8:35 PM on July 4, 2002

Very interesting discussion...

I would be honored to serve on a jury, and I'd do my best under the circumstances. I wouldn't go out of my way to avoid jury duty, and I wouldn't lie in jury selection.

I think the current jury selection system is flawed (what system isn't?), but overall it kinda works. In some cases, at least. I hope. Maybe. Heh.

People smart enough to get out of it but not civic minded enough to want to, avoid it.

Still better than tyranny, I grant.

Imagine what a perfected jury system would look like :). How can we get closer to that than we are now? These are interesting questions that lead in interesting directions, methinks.
posted by beth at 8:47 PM on July 4, 2002

I've never been summoned, but would like to check it out to say at least I've done it. I wonder if they would even get around to picking me, since it seems eductated people are sent home. What is odd is that both of my roomates were given notice within a couple of weeks to appear, but live in Boston rather than upstate New York.
posted by brent at 9:13 PM on July 4, 2002

I know the entry isomorphisms linked to was extremely long, so I will give the short version. I served on a criminal jury for a week in Queens County, and I learned a couple things. First of all, they do not automatically get rid of the "smart people". In fact, all the idiots in the jury pool were dismissed. All of those left on the jury were professional workers except for me, a graduate student, and a retired professional man.

I have no desire to get involved in the civil jury system, because those cases tend to go much longer -- the lawyers in those cases have a personal interest in the outcome, and lots of money involved.

But as for criminal trials -- consider what the alternative would be. I"m very happy with how the jury system has been administered in NYC, now that almost no one gets exempted.
posted by meep at 9:20 PM on July 4, 2002

I believe that serving on juries is a civic duty, and I've always done it with fascination and pleasure.

The last jury I was on acquitted a middle-aged man who was accused of possession of crack cocaine. It would have been his third strike (he served time for assault and some other smaller crime as a much younger man), and he would have been sentened to 20-to-life for alleged possession of a rock the size of a small pea. We decided that the cops were lying, that they planted the rock on him, and after he had been sitting in jail for six months awaiting trial we sent him home to his family.

That said, I think that people who would suffer financial hardship from being required to serve (i.e., freelancers, people whose companies do not pay their salaries during jury service) should be strongly considered for exemption from jury duty if it'll mean total loss of income during the period of their service. If that were my situation, I'd do my best to get out of having to serve, especially on these endless civil trials. I believe in our justice system, but I'm not willing to lose my house for it.
posted by chuq at 11:16 PM on July 4, 2002

I've been called twice. The first time I was about a week from giving birth, two days from due, so I was able to get a deferrment. Just barely. It took some doing to get someone to agree that it was sufficient reason for me to be allowed to come at another time -- and not until I reminded them that it would be a waste of time, no attorney in his/her right mind would ever impanel a juror who might give birth midway through proceedings.

The second time that I was called, I was put into the criminal pool. I wasn't desired by anyone, because at the time my husband was an assistant district attorney, and everyone knew who I was. I was shunted over to the civil side, and brought in for voir dire on a case in which a man was suing his former attorney for malpractice and mail fraud. I was immediately bumped from that jury as well. I sat around for the rest of the day reading and drinking crappy coffee, and by five my obligation was fulfilled. I haven't been called since.
posted by Dreama at 11:46 PM on July 4, 2002

I feel that jury duty is just doing your part of our legal system and I don't mind serving at all. I was called to jury duty once. Basically I sat in a room for a few hours, they called my group and about 30 of us went into a court room. They picked several people and had enough jurors. and sent the rest of us back to sit and wait. At around 12:30 we were all dismissed.
posted by LinemanBear at 7:04 AM on July 5, 2002

Philadelphia has the "One Day or One Trial" system. You are called, show up, and are either picked for jury duty on that day, or get to go home. No hanging around the courthouse for days.

My sole experience with being called for jury duty was about 15 years ago. I showed up at Philadelphia City Hall with a hundred or so others, and we sat around tables drinking coffee while the bailiffs called people one by one. By the end of the day, the only ones left uncalled were the other guy sitting at my table, and me. He was a high school principal. I have a post-graduate degree. No way to prove it, but it sure looked like the lawyers weren't interested in anyone educated.

Since then, I've moved outside of Philly, been called twice for jury duty, and been excused both times on the grounds that my absence would cause hardship at my workplace.

I do think jury duty is important, and should be part of citizenship. But duty cuts both ways. In return for their duty, the state ought to be fair to jurors, to pay them their usual wages, and help their employers cover for their absence.

In addition, I think people have a hard time taking the idea that 'jury duty is a responsibility of citizenship' seriously when the present system of jury selection is a sham, when trial venues are deliberately selected so as to pick a pool of uneducated, easily manipulated jurors, and when lawyers' tips for jury selection specify how to pick those jurors who are the most bitter, vengeful, and punitive.

Fix the system! Make a 'jury of one's peers' truly one's peers. Let everyone have to do jury duty, no excuses except a medical emergency or a personal relationship with the defendant. Stop letting lawyers cherry-pick juries! Pay people appropriately for their time, and help their employers cover for their absence. Do these things, and you'll find a lot more people willing to do their civic duty.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 7:35 AM on July 5, 2002

To paraphrase Bill Mauldin, I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages. I served on two juries within a year, and since then -- over fifteen years ago -- I haven't been called. I'm beginning to wonder if the system's just forgotten about me or something.
posted by alumshubby at 7:49 AM on July 5, 2002

Slithy_Tove, can one get out of jury duty on the basis that one objects to the jury-selection process? I have some problems with the way it's done too, especially after reading the links and considering the "choosing up sides for basketball" aspect of selection -- it's like a stupid beauty contest or something.
posted by alumshubby at 7:58 AM on July 5, 2002

What Slithy_Tove wants is about how New York City is doing it now. What the lawyers are bumping people for is obvious bias--the person related to a defendant, or the one who believes that the police never arrest an innocent person.

What gets to me is that there seem to be lots of people who complain that it wouldn't be a jury of their peers--and then talk about all the ways of getting off jury duty. Of course if you and all your friends try to avoid jury service, the jury won't consist of your peers.

(I've been on one jury, and one grand jury. I have a college degree, at the time had a white-collar job, and my father is a judge. What was that about excluding the educated?)
posted by rosvicl at 8:06 AM on July 5, 2002

Years ago, I word-processed (it was new then) for a major advertising firm. It was amusing to see the office explode into action whenever there was a jury summons -- they would have the partner write a letter explaining how indispensable this person was to a critical project they had been working on for months that would secure the firm millions of dollars in future business (word-processing, naturally, made that easy -- just change the name on the last one). There was also generation of ancillary materials to back it up, all bogus of course. Made me feel dirty.
posted by dhartung at 8:43 AM on July 5, 2002

I used to joke that "a jury of your peers" meant, "twelve people too stupid to get out of jury duty. Then I got called up, and as it would happen, I was not scheduled to consult anywhere that week.

During Voir Dire, the defense attorney looked at me and asked, "Do you believe that my client, who is gay, is more likely to commit a crime than a straight person?"

I was pole-axed. I stammered a second, choking back my initial response ("of course not!"). The attorney 'tsked' and waited. Finally, I quietly said, "Did you like, just arrive in Oklahoma?"

Suprised - and annoyed - he persisted. "Answer my question please."

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and said, "Except for statutes that make consensual homosexual acts illegal in the state of Oklahoma, turing sexually active gay men into habitual scofflaws -- No, I don't believe your client is more likely than straight men to commit crimes."


The defense attorney had that 'deer in the headlights' look. The prosecutor buried his face in his hands, and the judge... he just stared at me until I started to break a sweat. Which was probably about four seconds. Then he laughed, and asked both attorneys if they had any problems with my answer.

I stayed on the jury.

Defendant pleaded not guilty to posession with intent to distribute, and then admitted to the crime on the stand. Stupid, stupid boy. The 'civic minded senior citizens' on the jury held out for about thrice the sentence a judge would have handed out in such a case.
posted by willconsult4food at 4:42 PM on July 6, 2002

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