The American commitment to trial by jury is unparalleled throughout the world. Our belief that our peers should decide factual disputes is fundamental to this country’s legal process. Yet it’s no secret that many, if not most, of these peers would do almost anything to escape jury service.
Citizens who are 18 years or older are eligible—and required if chosen—to serve on juries in criminal and civil cases. Jurors are summoned at random, usually from the pool of registered voters or driver’s license holders. Summoned jurors who are not excused must appear at the courthouse for service. Whether those who are summoned must actually sit on a jury depends on many factors.
Jurors may be excused for what is often referred to as “undue hardship”—a circumstance that makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the person to serve. Undue hardship may be found for a variety of reasons. These may include situations where the individual:
Potential jurors who are not excused for undue hardship may be dismissed for other reasons. For example, a juror may be excused if she or he:
In addition to the above bases for dismissal from jury service, lawyers have a fixed number of peremptory challenges. They may use these challenges to dismiss would-be jurors for undisclosed reasons, as long the dismissal is not based on a characteristic such as race or gender. Each side in a jury trial has a set number of peremptory challenges, such as ten.
For example, lawyers who sense that the potential juror will be biased against their clients often dismiss these jurors. Lawyers might also dismiss jurors of a certain background, such as people who have experience dealing with the issues that are likely to arise at trial. For instance, in a medical malpractice case, each side may want to keep health care professionals off the jury.
Lawyers need not disclose to the juror or the court the reason for their exercise of a peremptory challenge. However, if the court senses a pattern that seems to show dismissals based on race or gender, the court can challenge the exercise of these peremptory dismissals.
The aversion to jury duty is nothing new. Citizens have tried to duck their civic duty since colonial times. In response, state and local governments have tried just about everything to force jurors to the courthouse. Historically, when low on turnout, courts relied upon the sheriff to corral bystanders in and around the courthouse and deliver them to the courtroom for service. Legislatures enacted fines as another means of compelling jury duty attendance. Contempt-of-court proceedings were available—and often used—for delinquent jurors.
Enforcement of statutes criminalizing jury duty avoidance waned with time. Courts failed to investigate or sanction those who didn’t respond to their jury summons. The result was meager turnout, with as many as half or more of potential jurors shirking their obligation. In recent times, however, state and local governments have renewed efforts to secure jury attendance.
Courts have various forms of punishment available for delinquent jurors, though what if any punishment they issue often depends on the state and judge involved. Some are quicker than others to lower the boom.
The prospective juror may be arrested, fined, or held in contempt of court. Contempt of court may be punished by fine, imprisonment or both, though jail time for no-show jurors has been somewhat rare.
Many states have a system whereby absentee jurors are not punished until they receive a follow-up letter informing them of how they may still comply with their duty. Oftentimes these notifications will provide an option of rescheduling the service date. A citizen who nevertheless persists in failing to appear may receive a court order directing him or her to come to court. At this point, the judge will demand an explanation for the dereliction. If unsatisfied by the justification, the judge may impose punishment.
Prospective jurors who make it as far as showing up to court should not rest on their laurels. Judges are notorious for snuffing out lame or phony excuses. Judges who detect potential deceit may simply refuse to excuse the potential juror. But a fibbing citizen runs the much more serious risk of criminal charges. As but one example, in March of 2012 a Denver woman was prosecuted on charges of perjury for allegedly faking a mental illness in order to avoid jury duty.