Jury Duty

The live action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is, in my opinion, far inferior to the original cartoon. But there’s a great scene in which the Grinch is messing things up in the post office. Among other things, he flings mail into the cubbyholes, all the while chanting, “Jury duty, jury duty, jury duty, blackmail, pink slip, eviction notice….” Is jury duty really that awful? And how does it work?

The idea behind jury duty is that people are entitled to a jury representing a cross-section of the community. We don’t have to have that sort of jury. When juries were used in 12th century England, they were composed of men who already knew something about the offense, by either being witnesses or having investigated the case. More recently, some people have proposed that we ought to have professional juries, especially in cases involving technical or scientific evidence that laypeople would have trouble grasping. But what we do instead is attempt to randomly choose members of the community to serve.

Jury selection processes vary by jurisdiction in the United States (big shock there, right?). Generally the jury commissioner (usually a county job) uses voting and drivers license registration records to compile a list of eligible people. This means certain groups will be underrepresented, especially the poor who may not have licenses, may not be registered voters, or may not have a permanent address. The commissioner estimates how many jurors will be needed in a particular time period, randomly chooses from the list, and sends those lucky people a jury summons.

The length of jury service varies. Where I live now, the rule is one day or one case–you get called in, and if you end up on a case that day, there you go. But if you don’t, your jury service is (usually) complete at the end of the day. There are exceptions to that rule, however. The last time I was called, jury selection in one particular case took two days, so we all sat there for that long. The first time I had jury duty, in Oregon, I had to serve for two weeks. During that span, some people served on more than one jury, while some of us didn’t end up on any. But we all sat there for two weeks.

As the Grinch knew, most people aren’t happy about getting that summons. If you ignore it, though, you can be found in contempt of court. Also, employers are required to give employees time off for jury service–but they’re not required to pay them. Serving can mean a real hardship for some people. Many jurisdictions allow those who’ve been summoned to ask for a reschedule. Another option is to go to court and try to convince the judge to let you off the hook. Judges vary in how lenient they are about this.

The group of people who have jury duty at any one particular time are called the jury pool or venire. I’ll post another time about how we get from that large group to the twelve (or so) specific people needed in a particular case.

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