Let's Get Serious About Jury Duty
Here’s a tip: If you want to avoid jury service, simply tell the judge you have a pre-paid vacation planned. No one will seek to verify if what you are saying is the truth. Vacations are the get-out-of-jail card for potential jurors. It works every time.
Of course, the real question is why you would want to do such a thing. Jury service is one of the few times in an average person’s life where they can have real civic efficacy. The decisions jurors make change lives for good or for ill. Ducking out on jury service is sort of like burning the flag on the Fourth of July.
Even more mystifying to me is the number of employers who refuse to pay employees when the employees are called to serve. Some of the state’s largest employers refuse to pay for anything more than the mandatory minimum required by law. Institutions that will run to court in a heartbeat to protect their privileges won’t ante up to make it possible for the broadest participation possible in this vital institution.
State law requires employers to pay full-time employees for their first five days of jury service. Thereafter, employers are off the hook. The state will pay jurors the sum of $50 a day to serve. Many jurors live so close to the economic edge that they cannot afford to serve on a case lasting more than five days.
The federal system is even more parsimonious. Jurors are paid $40 per day, plus parking and travel expenses, with the possibility to be paid up to $50 per day in trials lasting more than 10 days.
It’s hard to believe that one of the reasons the colonies revolted from Great Britain was because the king had limited the right to a trial by jury. By contemporary standards, King George would be voted a national hero for eliminating a bothersome requirement.
I’ve made a couple of good friends of jurors who sat on cases of mine. They tell me that jury service was a transforming experience, changing forever their perspective on things they once took for granted, things like liberty, the ability to live unmolested in their own homes, or the rights and responsibilities of citizens, if not citizenship. Jury service, you see, is as close to radicalism as most Americans ever get: For a brief period, you get a front row seat in one of life’s grandest and most tragic theaters.
Our unwillingness to serve on juries, and to pay our employees to serve on juries, is a sign of civic disease. Ducking out on jury service is simply a way of announcing a loss of faith in communal norms. Perhaps that is why corporations so often favor private arbitration and mediation — keep their acts and omissions out of court, out of view, and out of the hands of ordinary men and women.
I pick 10 to 12 juries a year in Connecticut. Clients depend on jurors to judge the state’s accusations against them, or to consider whether to require a defendant to pay money damages after an injury. While I am sometimes disappointed and sometimes shocked by what jurors do, I’d rather have ordinary folks, what lawyers call a “fair cross section of the community,” make these decisions than have the decisions made by professional decision makers.
A verdict rendered is akin to magic: At once, the world is transformed and an oracle, in this case, the community, speaks. Jurors decide what is and is not reasonable, what is and is not just, what is and is not fair. Opting out of making these fundamental decisions is shameful.
State and federal law ought to require that all employers pay their employees their salary for the full term of their jury service. Why boast to the world that we are so proud of our system of justice but then walk away from funding it?
If we lack the political will to require employers to pay the salaries of those who serve, then jurors should be compensated at their average salary for the 13 weeks prior to their being summoned to service. Simply require jurors to bring in pay stubs to permit verification of the proper pay.
The rule of law is not algebra. There are no hidden formulas, no secret levers of justice. Legislators make laws. Judges render rulings. Prosecutors and lawyers represent the interests of their clients in open court in rule-bound warfare. But in the end, juries decide who to believe, and what to do with the disputes we ask them to consider. Juries create on a case-by-case basis one of political philosophy’s greatest mysteries — a sense of legitimacy. More so than episodic voting, or money thrown into the maws of political coffers, jury verdicts have an immediate and tangible impact.
One of the most powerful questions I’ve ever seen asked of a potential juror is the following: “Suppose it were you on trial, would you want a juror with your views to sit in judgment?”
Just the other day, a young man stunned me: “I want to serve because if I ever needed a jury, I’d want someone to be there for me.”
Exactly, I thought. Everyman spoke. The promise of democracy was on display. However inconvenient the duty, the call of the community was heard. This young man, all of 20-something, became my hero.
I’ve seen far too many good and honest people released from service for financial reasons. What am I to tell my client — working people and members of the lower middle-class aren’t important enough to be included on a jury? If we want a fair cross section of the community to serve, then we must get serious about making it possible for them to do so.
The next time you get a summons for jury duty, regard it as an honor. You are being asked to participate in a process that permits you to decide questions that will change the lives of the participants forever.
Or, if you must, just tell the judge you’re going on vacation to avoid it all. Then go home and take a good long look in the mirror: Odds are, you won’t like what you see.