Rethinking juries, Part 1: Changing the perception of jury service

Jane Q Citizen returns home from a hard day of work and sighing, flips through the day’s mail.  Junk mail, junk mail, junk mail, bill, bill, bill, credit card offer . . . Juror Summons.  $%@#@^&$%^&*(&$@  !!!!  “Don’t I have enough stuff to do already?”  “My boss is going to hate this.”  “My spouse will complain about having to take the kids to soccer practice” . . . “I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS!!!!!”

Far be it from me to minimize Jane Q Citizen’s legitimate concerns.  It can be a pain in the you-know-what to disrupt your schedule to sit in a courthouse and listen to someone else’s problems and make a decision on someone else’s dispute.  Her concerns are not entirely selfish either.  Jury service can be a disruption to Jane’s family, employer, and co-workers too. 

Here’s the thing, however.  Jury trials are an important and necessary part of our government, our economy, and our everyday lives.  The jury room is the only true democracy left in the world, the only place where every voice is heard, every vote is counted, and nobody leaves until there is a consensus.  It is pure democracy, practiced by a rotating group of everyday citizens making common sense judgments on important issues.  It should be considered a privilege to serve on a jury, not a burden.

From my experience, anyone serving as a juror is considered by their friends and coworkers as being less-than-bright for not finding a way to avoid serving.  “Can’t you tell them you have childcare responsibilities that you cannot avoid?”  “Can’t you tell them that you are involved in a crucial project at work?”  “Why didn’t you tell them that your employer won’t pay you while you are on jury duty?”  The proffered excuses are endless.  The pressure immense.  In other words, juries are now primarily composed of people who have nothing else to occupy their days or weren’t creative (or devious) enough to avoid serving.  That must be confidence inspiring for anyone whose fate will be determined by a jury!

What can be done to change the perception of potential jurors towards serving on a jury?  What can increase the willingness of Americans to take a turn at jury duty?  I have a few suggestions. 

First, eliminate the ambush factor in jury service.  Jury summons are sent out on a random basis with no concern for the schedules of the potential jurors.  Yes, there are procedures for postponing service, but that may result in another random assignment that is equally inconvenient.  Why not send out a questionnaire asking for two weeks of availability/relative inconvenience for jury service at the beginning of the year?  Imagine . . . business people being able to schedule jury duty during their typically slower times of the year, school teachers making themselves available during summer break, students being available during vacations from schools . . . is that so hard?

Second, encourage participation in the system.  I recently was called up for jury duty.  Despite all of the Jane Q-like excuses and pressures, I told my family and work that I would show up for jury service and not try to get excused.  I’m self-employed, I would lose some money while on jury duty, but I am a trial lawyer.  It is hypocritical for me to require jurors when I take a case to trial, but not be part of the jury pool.  During the preliminary procedures in the jury reporting room, we were all asked to indicate whether we could be available for a two-week trial.  While I was willing and able to serve a couple of days, even a week, on jury duty, a two-week trial would bring my law practice to a screeching halt and cause financial concerns; I responded “no.”  The juror commissioner’s office response – “you indicated it would be a financial hardship for two weeks, don’t you want to just claim financial hardship and get excused entirely?”  Actually, no.  I can afford to serve for a short trial, thank you very much.  She shook her head as though I was crazy.

I, for one, am spreading the message of the importance of jury duty every time I get a summons for jury duty and every time a family member or co-worker gets one.  I encourage them to serve.  I encourage them to participate.  When one of my employees gets noticed for jury duty, I’ll work with them to ensure they get the time off and get paid.  What are you going to do?