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Jury Duty - Jury Service is a Big Responsibility

Updated on October 10, 2014
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If you receive a notice for jury duty, take it seriously because it is a legal obligation. Ignore it and you are in violation of the law.

The right to a trial by one's peers, the right to a jury trial, is a basic part of the American system of justice. This right exists in both civil and criminal cases and is written into the United States Constitution. The Sixth Amendment provides for the "right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury..." The Seventh Amendment states: .., "the right of trial by jury shall be preserved..." So we have our sacred right to a jury trial embodied in our constitution. But how does that right show up in reality in courtrooms across the country?

How Many People Sit on an American Jury?

The answer is six or twelve, and if you think those numbers carry magic, they don't. The United States Supreme Court (Williams v. Florida, 399 U.S. 78 (1970)) has held that a panel of six does not violate a person's rights under the Constitution, and that twelve jurors aren't necessary. A study done by the University of Glasgow concluded that twelve is not an effective number because some people are intimidated by a larger group, and that seven is a better number. ("The More the Merrier?", Mental Floss, November–December 2011, p. 74). So it's up to each state to decide how many will sit on a jury, with Congress making the call for the Federal Courts.

The Juror's Job

The jury's job is to find the facts and to come to a decision based on those facts and on the judge's orders concerning the law. The judge will "charge" or instruct the jury to come to a decision based on the facts as presented by the evidence. It may sound like this:

The defendant has been accused of first degree murder. The law defines first degree murder as the taking of the life of another, not in self defense, and with malice and premeditation. If you find that defendant's actions met that test, you must find defendant guilty of first degree murder.

Of course it gets a lot more complicated than that, and the judges charging instructions may go on for over an hour with the judge explaining the law of each count that defendant has been charged with or, in a civil case, each count of the plaintiff's complaint. In most cases the jurors cannot take notes but they can ask for a rereading of any of the judge's charge during deliberations. The long standing policy against note taking is based on the idea that the jury should pay attention to the evidence, including the demeanor of witnesses. If they're busy taking notes they can miss some important evidence. The judge will tell the jury to make a decision based on the evidence and the evidence alone.

Twelve Angry Men

The 1957 film Twelve Angry Men is the best portrayal of the drama of what can happen in a jury room. A young man was on trial for murder and if the jury found him guilty he would go to the electric chair. The evidence seemed simple and straight forward, and it appeared that they would come to a quick decision for conviction. One juror, played by Henry Fonda in one of his most memorable roles, started to carefully discuss all of the evidence and told his fellow jurors why he had a doubt and could not convict. The ensuing drama is why many, myself included, consider Twelve Angry Men the iconic drama of the jury room.

The Wrong Kind of "Evidence"

My late uncle was a lovely human being but he did have an annoying proclivity. He knew everything, or believed he did. I recall a time when he excitedly told me about a case on which he sat as a juror. He was excited because I was the publisher of The New York Jury Verdict Reporter at the time. This was a weekly publication that summarized civil jury verdicts. He couldn't wait to see "his" case in my publication. The lawsuit involved a woman who claimed that she tripped and fell over an electric box that was in the middle of an aisle at defendant department store. She suffered a nasty wrist fracture. Uncle explained to me, as he had to his fellow jurors, that no electrician in his right mind would ever leave a box in the middle of an aisle without recessing it into the floor. Therefore, uncle concluded, the woman was telling a story. "But uncle," I inquired, "didn't the evidence indicate that the box was indeed in the middle of the floor?" "Impossible," insisted uncle, "no electrician would do that." Uncle was a member of Local Three, the Electrician's Union. He succeeded in convincing his fellow juror's that they should ignore the evidence submitted at trial and make their decision based on his expert theory. They found in favor of defendant, and the woman went home empty handed. If plaintiff's attorney had heard about this I'm sure that he would have brought a motion to dismiss the verdict based on jury misbehavior, but even if he had, judges are reluctant to second guess the findings of a jury. I never published the case.

If you ever sit on a jury, please don't listen to a self appointed expert like my uncle. Listen instead to the instructions that the judge gives you.

Have you ever tried to avoid jury duty?

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Think of Jury Duty as an Obligation of Citizenship

Many (most?) people, when they receive a notice of jury duty, immediately think of how they can get out of it. Many jurisdictions in the United States no longer allow blanket waivers for jury duty based on occupation. New York, for example once had a list of occupations that were exempt from service. Judith Kay, then Chief Justice of the New York State Court of Appeals and head of the New York judiciary, did away with this list in the 1990s. Shortly after she removed the blanket exemptions, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani received a jury summons. He responded as any citizen would and actually sat on a case. There are "hardship exemptions" that can be requested. A person whose occupation requires his or her personal involvement in a business and has no employees to "mind the shop," would typically be excused. Also, during voire dire, the questioning period where each attorney gets to ask questions of potential jurors, the attorneys will often (if they're smart) ask the jury candidate if , say, a weeklong trial would cause them a hardship. If the person honestly says yes, the attorney would be wise to let the person off the hook.

But if jury service would not cause you a serious hardship, by all means be willing to serve. The experience could be a fascinating one, and you will have performed one of the most important duties of citizenship.

Parts of this article were excerpted from my book Justice in America: How it Works, How it Fails.

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran

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    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      rfmoran

      I will have to read Justice in America.

      Thanks

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Yes, jurors are paid a per diem and it depends on the state. You can make as much on a jury as you can as a first year Hubber! The bottom line to all of your excellent points is this: the jury system is an imperfect system for an imperfect world. A large part of my book, Justice in America: How it Works - How it Fails, is about these issues.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      rfmoran

      I know that you are going to disagree with my comment.

      The jury system in the United States has not been a jury of ones peers for the longest time.

      The effectiveness of the jury system can be viewed from the really questionable jury verdicts of the last several decades.

      Aside from the jury, the only other required to be in the court that are not being paid is the defendant. Juries are not even adequately compensated for their expenses, much less their time.

      People that have paid their taxes have done their duty.

      For criminal trial, juries are too easily swayed by circumstantial evidence. Jury selection is a keystone of a criminal case, and it has become an area of paid expertise by the attorneys in high profile cases.

      In civil cases, jury selection is also very important. The jurors are picked with a different criteria, but the goal is the same. Pick the jurors that will side with your side.

      The common point between criminal and civil trials is the jury selection. Changing the jury for any case will be the most significant change that will affect the verdict. That is if you have the same case with a hundred different juries, if would be difficult for anyone to predict the number of juries that will give the same verdict.

      It is one thing for the jury to be the trier of facts, but it is another thing to have them be ignorant of the law. Yes, the judge will give instructions, but they may not even understand these instruction.

      Contrast that with a case that is being heard by the court and not the jury. The judge is both trier of fact and of the law. When the judge listens to the facts, isn't judge going to filter them with a knowledge of the law?

      For Civil Cases, I would increase the limits to double or triple what it is today for small claims matters. For more complicated civil cases requiring a jury, there is no way that the majority of the parties could afford to level the playing field.

      Money has its advantages, and buying more powerful law firms is one of them. These law firms can outspend their competition, just like Obama outspent Hillary Clinton.

      In Criminal Cases the choice of attorneys for the defendant is even more crucial. The additional problem is that most people believe that once a personal is arrested it is only a formality to convict. A good attorney can overcome that view, but not many people can afford them.

      The point is that the justice system should have a mechanism to level the playing field from the rich to the poor, and the field was the jury. But the jury of today is too media conversant, and the media sets the tone for the prospective jurors.

      Does anyone still believe that the jury is a peer of the defendant?

      Thanks

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 4 years ago from Pasadena CA

      I didn't even know they paid a per diem (lol). Does that depend on the state?

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your comments.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Great article. I have done my jury duty but I believe another will be coming any day now.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Suzette. Yes, jury duty can be a financial hardship even with the modest per diem they pay.

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 4 years ago from Pasadena CA

      I would like to serve too. I was called up once, but couldn't serve without losing income (substitute teacher). Good article, Russ. Easy to read, straight to the point. Liked the anecdote about your uncle.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thank you for your interesting historical perspective!

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      I would love to serve but I never get picked as a former legal publisher

    • profile image

      skeltop 4 years ago

      The American jury system is an outgrowth of the English system. Originally, the "jury" was selected from among one's neighbors. The landholder (the Lord or whatever titled landholder) charged the jury to investigate the facts of the dispute presented to the landholder. The jurors then presented what they learned about the dispute to the landholder, who determined the result. Some American judges, in the spirit of the original system, if the parties agree, will allow the jury members to submit questions, but this is not often done.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Good information Russ! I've served once, been rejected once, and got a hardship once. I'm about due again....yet some of my friends have never been called. Hmmmm!

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Sis. I used to work on FELA cases too when I was in Chicago.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      One would hope we're equal under the law! Some aren't so sure.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas

      My only experience with jury duty is as a paralegal in railroad injury cases (we represented the Plaintiff). It seems very few who report for jury duty realize how important the voir dire part of the judicial process is -- and how long it can take. Excellent Hub and enjoyable read with good information. Best/Sis

    • michiganman567 profile image

      michiganman567 4 years ago from Michigan

      Very well written. I haven't had jury duty and hopefully I never will. I think that Obama set the example when he was called for jury duty and ignored it. If he doesn't have to go, then neither do I. We are all equal under the law right?