Jury duty: It’s the civic duty you sign up for by virtue of being an American citizen, but no one said you had to like it.
For those who have yet to serve on a jury, the process might be shrouded in mystery.
As much as we all cherish our evening crime shows, they don’t necessarily shed light on the little gears that keep our legal system churning.
So today we’ll talk about jury duty – what it entails, how you land it, and what your responsibilities are to the court.
First up, you’re probably wondering: how are jurors picked?
Funny you should ask…
- Gather the Names
Here’s how it works: when you register to vote or obtain a driver’s license, you land on a list called the “venire.” You sit on this list until you are randomly chosen to serve on a jury. Once your name is drawn, the list is screened even before you’re contacted.
Why? Because sometimes, based on your occupation, you’ll be booted from the juror pool just because of what you do. The thought is that you might have a very important profession, and your absence would be too great of a loss to too many people (CIA agent, maybe?)
Bizarre, right? Well, it doesn’t happen too often anymore, so don’t hold your breath.
- Speak the Truth (Voir Dire)
If you make the cut, you have to show up in court for a second round of screening. The judge will tell you all about the case. Then, the judge and both lawyers will ask if there is any reason you think you might not be qualified to sit on the jury.
Some questions might be…
- Did you have any prior knowledge of this case before today?
- Have you gone through any experiences that you believe could steer you towards an unfair bias in either direction?
- Are you related to one of the people on this case or either one of the lawyers?
- Do you work for a company that is involved in this lawsuit?
After all of these questions are answered, the lawyers can request the dismissal of a juror “for cause” or without cause (called a “peremptory challenge”). Peremptory challenges, those dismissals without cause, are limited by number, and lawyers are not permitted to move for dismissal based on race or sex.
But the end of the day, only the judge can dismiss a juror.
- Sit, Listen, Think
Once the list is finalized, the jurors are sworn in. They’re instructed that their primary function is to listen, avoid preconceived notions, and abstain from talking to other jurors until the “deliberations” period.
After the case is presented and closing arguments are given, the judge gives the jury its “charge.”
These are basically instructions, and oftentimes this means that the judge will:
- State the main issues of the case
- Define unfamiliar words and terms
- Reiterate the standards of proof a guilty sentence requires
- Civil Case = preponderance of evidence
- Criminal Case = beyond a reasonable doubt
- Remind the jury that the opening and closing arguments are NOT evidence
After receiving these instructions, the jury goes to the jury room to consider all the evidence that has been presented. Ideally, they will reach a verdict.
If no verdict is reached, the result is a “hung jury,” meaning the jurors could not agree. This will either lead to a new trial or the dropping of a case.
Of course there are missteps and complications depending on the case, but that’s the process in a nutshell.
If you’re ever called to serve, don’t sweat it!
When you really think about it, your selection (and the entire use of a civilian jury) is an expression of confidence that justice resides in the hands of American citizens.
Could be worse, right?