We’ve all been there. That moment when we’re flipping through the mail and we see… The Envelope.
The dreaded jury summons.
Nobody beams with excitement when they are called for jury duty– at least nobody I know. I have been summoned a few times, and unless I have a trial conflict, I show up as required. To be completely honest, there are a million things I’d rather do with my time, but I appreciate our jury system and know that participation is vital. Unlike many of my fellow venire members, I know the drill. So I come prepared. Book. Fully charged iPhone and iPad. Earbuds. Charger. Snacks in my purse. Asprin. And a gigantic bottle of water. Enough to entertain me for the hours of wait time ahead.
No matter how many jurors were summoned, there will always be no-shows. Courts across the country have been struggling with this for decades. It’s a consistent and prevalent problem in every venue. There are a million reasons that people fail to show up for jury duty. Inaccurate Data. Some folks are absent simply because the county has the wrong address or outdated contact information for the prospective juror. Miscommunication. Others make an attempt to reschedule, seek an exemption or claim hardship but receive no clear “yay” or “nay” from the court on whether they are actually excused. Jurors assume they don’t have to go; the court assumes they do. Paltry wages. Unfortunately, many jurors who fail to show up for jury duty make a conscious decision to ignore the summons. Why? Life gets in the way and they see no value in serving as a juror. Daily juror pay is nothing to write home about. Jurors lucky enough to serve in South Carolina can earn up to two whole dollars a day. (Really!?!?!) Factor in the cost of gas, missing work, child care, parking and lunch and many jurors actually lose money by showing up for jury duty.
When we combine inaccurate data with miscommunication and paltry wages, is it any wonder that juror show-rates are lower than we’d like?
Apparently, judges in Florida had enough. Last week, more than 150 jurors were summoned in Brevard, Florida for a burglary trial. When less than 50% showed up for jury duty the trial had to be postponed. Deputy Chief Judge Charles Waters would have none of that. He called a special hearing with a handful of other judges, summoned the no-shows, and required citizens to explain in person why they shirked their civic duty. Some of the excuses were downright silly; others, more understandable. No matter the excuse, these summoned jurors opted out and failed to participate.
But let’s not forget about the thousands of citizens across the United States who do honor their civic responsibility. They show up. They participate. And they take the oath to serve.
After recently completing a six-week trial last week, I am once again reminded what sacrifices our jurors make in order to keep our justice system working. No matter how long the trial, juggling work commitments, family commitments and preserving one’s personal sanity while at the mercy of the court cannot be a walk in the park. But, thousands of people do it. Every day.
In today’s what’s-in-it-for-me society, jury service presents challenges. The pay stinks. The process is slow. We lose our independence and are forced to function in a very rigid, rule-bound environment. And we’re required to work out complex problems with a group of utter strangers with whom we may not even like. So why serve?
Because it’s the right thing to do.
The United States justice system is a unique system of checks and balances. The government decides the law, but the people decide the facts. When the people fail to show up for jury duty, the system of checks and balances gets out of whack and– one could argue– the government is given more power than it should. We have to trust jurors to evaluate the facts carefully, earnestly and with their hearts and minds. Whether we agree with the ultimate outcome or not, one thing is clear: we owe a huge dose of gratitude to each and every juror for taking their jury summons seriously and giving their time and energy to the court… and to our clients.
The next time you receive a summons in the mail, think about this: what would our country be like if the government decided both the law and the facts in all of the civil and criminal disputes?
If we all participate in the process, we’ll hopefully never have to find out.