Bucket List: Jury Duty

by Susan Ellis Wild

As a litigator, one of the questions I am most often asked by friends and acquaintances is:  “Can you get me out of jury duty?”  I have a short answer:  “No.”  Then, if they will tolerate my explanation, I tell them why.  But before I get to that, some background.

I litigate civil cases, not criminal, but my thinking on this subject applies to all types of court cases that come before a jury.  Keep in mind that many legal disputes are decided solely by a Judge, without a jury, because of the nature of the case – divorce and custody is an example.    A jury may be called upon to decide a case when the subject matter of the case is suitable for decision by a jury and when one or both sides request a jury.   In the civil arena, this may include personal injury claims, contract disputes, collection matters (money owed), claims for infringement of civil rights, disputes among business owners, etc.  In those cases, assuming that the right to trial by jury has not been waived, either party may “demand” a trial by jury, which results in the lawsuit being put on a jury trial track.

After many months of pretrial proceedings (conducted by the lawyers and presided over by a Judge), the case is ready for trial.  A tremendous amount of time and attention is devoted by litigators to analyzing the type of jury that may be best for the particular case.   In fact, the amount of time litigators spend on this issue is probably disproportionate because in reality, the trial lawyers have minimal control over who is eventually picked for the jury.  Typically, a case will be heard by either 8 or 12 jurors, depending on the type of case.  On the designated day for jury selection between 40 and 80 people (“veniremen”) will be summoned for jury service and a group of them will be led into a courtroom or jury room to be questioned.  The questioning process is called “voir dire” (from old French “to see to speak” – commonly referred to as “to speak the truth”).  This is the lawyers’ opportunity to ferret out any bias that a particular person may have about the case which would make him unsuitable to serve on the jury.  Examples may be that a potential juror has close business ties to one of the parties to the lawsuit, or is related to one of them, or simply has something in her personal background that makes her unable to be fair to the litigants.

Generally, the lawyers are limited in what they are permitted to ask the jurors because the purpose of voir dire is only to eliminate any potential jurors who are unable to be fair.  However, trial lawyers like to take know as much as possible about the potential jurors, and will often ask questions that are tailored to the facts of the case, to see if they get a reaction from any of the veniremen.  Ultimately, however, the goal is to have 8 or 12 people who are able to hear the evidence in the case without bias or favoritism.  Lawyers often like to tell jury prospects that “we just want a level playing field.”

So, why won’t I help someone get out of jury duty?  First, jury duty is a civic responsibility and I regard it as unethical to try to help someone avoid it.  Second, the most I could do is suggest ways of answering questions that might make a prospective juror undesirable to the lawyers, again an unethical thing to do. The most important reason I won’t offer tips for avoiding jury service is this:  we trial lawyers want a jury that is representative of a wide array of people, preferably people who are smart people who question what they are being told, and who are capable of coming to good decisions. Not only do we lawyers want that, our clients do too.  The last thing we want is a jury composed of people who just couldn’t figure out how to avoid jury duty.

Serving on a jury is a very rewarding, educational and eye-opening experience.  It may not be on your bucket list right now, but you might want to consider adding it.

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