One of the most important services a person can provide to his or her community is to serve as a juror. Unfortunately, far too many people are misinformed about jury duty and what it involves, so they view it as a huge inconvenience that is to be avoided at all costs. In this blog entry, I hope to eliminate some of the misconceptions about serving on a jury, so that at least some of the readers may see jury service in a different light.
You will first learn of being called for jury duty when you receive a letter in the mail from the Circuit Clerk in the county where you reside. The letter will inform you that you have been called to serve as a juror during a particular term of court, which lasts four months. You will also be given a questionnaire to complete, which is very important. The questionnaire provides information about you to the parties whose case you may be hearing, so it is important for you to carefully and completely answer all of the questions listed. Those questions allow the attorneys to make an informed decision about whether or not you would be a good juror for their particular case. Finally, you will be given instructions about when and where to call to determine if you need to report for jury duty.
If you are one of the individuals called for jury duty, you will be asked to report to the county courthouse at 8:30 or 9:00, depending upon the practice of the particular judge presiding over the case. Once you arrive, the judge will give you a brief explanation about what is about to happen. You will take an oath promising to answer questions truthfully, after which the judge will briefly tell you about the pending case and the attorneys handling it. He will then ask you a series of general questions about your familiarity with the case, the parties, or the attorneys representing them. It may turn out that the plaintiff is your neighbor, or the defendant is someone that you have worked with for 20 years. There are all sorts of things that can come out in this first round of questioning, which is simply intended to determine whether or not there is some obvious reason why you should not serve as a juror.
Once the judge has finished his questions, the lawyers will likely be given the opportunity to question you further. The questions they ask are usually designed to uncover information that will help the attorneys figure out your feelings on particular issues. For instance, a question I frequently ask of jurors is whether or not they or a member of their family has worked in the insurance industry. If my case is against Liberty Mutual Insurance for failing to properly evaluate and pay a claim, I probably don’t want an employee of State Farm on my jury. I think you get the point here. Depending upon the situation, an attorney may ask the Court to strike a juror “for cause” if that juror answers a question in a way that indicates he or she may be biased against one side or the other. The Court’s ruling will depend upon the specific circumstances of each case.
After the attorneys have finished asking their questions, each party will be given an opportunity to eliminate two jurors from the pool. No reason is necessary; sometimes, a lawyer will look at a juror and just get the feeling that he or she isn’t right for the case presented. These are call peremptory strikes, and they are completely within the discretion of the attorney, save for one exception we don’t need to get into here.
Finally, we will end up with six jurors and, in cases expected to last several days, one or two alternates. No one knows who the alternates are until all of the evidence has been presented, at which time the judge will excuse the alternates. Frustrating to the alternates, I’m sure, but necessary to make sure all jurors remain focused and attentive.
When the case is submitted for consideration, the jurors retire to the jury room, select a foreperson, and begin their deliberations. Sometimes deliberation takes an hour; sometimes it takes several days. In the end, the verdict must be unanimous. The verdict is presented to the judge, and the trial phase of the case is concluded.
The American system of jurisprudence, with its provision for trial by a jury of one’s peers, is unique in the world. It separates us from the other nations who envy our prosperity and our freedom. Being a part of such a unique and valuable system is an opportunity we should all value.