Whether you consider it "good" luck or "bad," some people do get called for jury duty more than others. There is no government conspiracy behind the fact that you may have received four jury summons in the past decade while your neighbor hasn't gotten one; it's simply the luck of the draw. It's like those people who win the lottery multiple times, except instead of getting millions of dollars, you get to sit in a stuffy courthouse waiting room with slow WiFi.
The simple reason why some people get summoned to report for jury duty more than others is that the selection system is completely random. Prospective jurors are randomly picked by a computer from the jury pool. The pool, in most states, is a combined list of names from both the voter registration rolls and the driver's license database.
If your name is in the jury pool, there is no limit to the number of times that you can be flagged for jury duty. The good news is that once you report for service, your name is pulled from the jury pool for at least the next 12 months, even if you don't get placed on a jury [source: Philadelphia Courts]. If you actually serve, you are exempt from jury duty for the next two or three years, depending on the state. After that, you're tossed back in the mix.
Instead of seeing it as a curse, you could be thankful that you even qualify to be called for jury duty. Convicted felons aren't allowed to sit on juries, for example, nor are people with serious physical or mental illnesses [source: U.S. Courts]. In that way, it's a blessing that you are able to serve your country and its impartial judicial system. We salute you, juror number 178293!
Still not convinced that the system is fair? Keep reading to learn more about the jury system in America and (shhh!) how to lower your odds of getting picked for jury duty.
The History of the Jury System
Why exactly are people randomly picked to serve on a jury? Wouldn't it be better to let legal experts decide important court cases, and a not a dozen random strangers? Who came up with this system, anyway?
The answer to that last question, like most, is the ancient Greeks. In the groundbreaking Athenian democracy created in 507 B.C.E., all court cases were decided directly by the people. Huge juries of 500 people or more were selected every day from a pool of roughly 40,000 adult male citizens to rule on everything from murder cases to neighborly squabbles [source: History.com].
The Magna Carta, penned in 1215, expressly included the right of every free man to protection from punishment without "the lawful judgment of his peers" [source: Library of Congress]. The 18th-century framers of the United States Constitution believed that a trial by an impartial jury was among the principle rights of any free society. In fact, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments to the Constitution ensure the right to a jury in both criminal and civil cases [source: U.S. Courts].
Today, U.S. federal law states that juries must be "selected at random from a fair cross section of the community ... wherein the court convenes." Hence the computer-selected names from a list of registered voters and licensed drivers. The law further states that "all citizens shall have the opportunity to be considered for service ... and shall have an obligation to serve as jurors when summoned for that purpose" [source: Cornell University Law School].
These two components of the U.S. jury system — randomness and compulsory service — combine to ensure that a jury is a representative sample of the community regardless of race, gender, political affiliation or ability to weasel out of jury duty.
Being called for jury duty does not mean that you'll sit on an actual case. In fact, there's a good chance that you will be dismissed the same day and sent home with your free pass for a year.
When a trial requires a jury, prospective jurors are brought in and asked questions by lawyers from both sides in a process called voir dire [source: U.S. Courts]. From a large group of prospective jurors called each day, only six to 12 (a trial or petit jury) will be chosen for the trial phase of criminal or civil cases, and up to 23 for a grand jury [source: U.S. Courts]. Each side's lawyers can reject a number of prospective jurors without giving a reason. This is called a peremptory challenge, and the number allowed ranges between three and 20 per side, depending on the type of case [source: Cornell University Law School]. Since some alternates are also needed for the jury box, you have to have large pool of potential jurors to seat 12 people and two alternates. That's one reason you might find your jury summons coming quite regularly. Another is if you live in an area with high rate of no-shows. That means the court may request a lot more people to appear than it might need.
Is there a way to lower your odds of being summoned for jury duty or selected for an actual trial? Find out on the next page.
Getting Out of Jury Duty
Yes, jury duty is a legal obligation, and sure, it contributes to the impartiality and overall fairness of the American judicial system, but it's also a genuine pain in the neck.
You miss work. You battle rush-hour traffic to get downtown. You wander cluelessly around the courthouse looking for your room. You wait for what seems like an eternity (two hours). Finally, you're herded into a courtroom to be questioned by bored lawyers and a scary-looking judge. Then you're sent home with a few bucks for your trouble. Or worse, you are selected for a trial that lasts all week!
There are legitimate reasons to want to avoid jury duty, but we would never encourage you to break the law. Instead, use the law to your advantage.
For example, most states draw prospective jurors from the voter registration rolls and the driver's license database. If your name appears differently on those two lists — Bob instead of Robert, for example, or married name versus maiden name — you might be counted twice. The same thing can happen if your address or birth date are different [source: Superior Court of California]. Lower your odds of getting picked by updating your records through the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Then there are the exemptions from service. When you receive your jury summons, it will come with a questionnaire to determine your eligibility for service. Medical or physical conditions are certainly grounds for exemption, if accompanied by a doctor's note (jurors over 70 don't need a note). You can also claim a "hardship" exemption if serving on a jury will result in a critical loss of wages, or you need to be home to take care of a child or elderly relative [source: Philadelphia Courts].
What if you can't legally get out of jury service, but want to avoid being picked for an actual trial? Homer Simpson's sage advice: "Getting out of jury duty is easy. The trick is to say you're prejudiced against all races." Well, not exactly. While it's true that lawyers or the judge will dismiss a juror who is openly biased against one of the parties in the case, don't pull a Homer. Once you've heard an overview of the case, you can simply claim that you are unable be fair and impartial, and they'll let you go [source: Warner].
For lots more information about the U.S. judicial system and famously controversial court cases, check out the links on the next page.
Author's Note: Do some people get called for jury duty more than others?
I've only be called for jury duty once, and I'm, uh, a couple of years beyond my 18th birthday. To be honest, I kind of got a kick out of the whole experience. Sure, there was a lot of unnecessary sitting around and the vending machine selection was deplorable, but I came this close — this close! — to sitting on an actual death penalty case. Unfortunately, as a freelance writer, if I'm not writing, I'm not getting paid, so I asked for an exemption. The district attorney might have kicked me off the list anyway, since I was unsure whether I could vote for the death penalty. Frankly, I find it somewhat insane that a group of 12 doofuses (doofi?) like me could be handed that much power in the first place.
More Great Links
- Edwards, Johnny. "Judges: This time we're serious about jury duty crackdown." Atlanta-Journal Constitution. May 2, 2012. (April 17, 2015). http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/judges-this-time-were-serious-about-jury-duty-crac/nQTS8/
- History.com. "Ancient Greek Democracy." 2010 (April 17, 2015) http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/ancient-greece-democracy
- Legal Information Institute. "28 U.S. Code Chapter 121 – JURIES; TRIAL BY JURY" (April 17, 2015) https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/28/part-V/chapter-121
- Library of Congress (LOC). "Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor" (April 17, 2015) http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/magna-carta-muse-and-mentor/trial-by-jury.html
- The Philadelphia Courts. "Frequently Asked Questions About Jury Service" (April 17, 2015) http://www.courts.phila.gov/juryservice/juryfaq.asp?keepThis=true
- Superior Court of California. "Frequently Asked Questions" (April 17, 2015) http://www.fresno.courts.ca.gov/jury/faq.php
- United States Courts. "About Jury Service" (April 17, 2015) http://www.uscourts.gov/FederalCourts/JuryService/about-jury-service.aspx
- United States Courts. "Juror Qualifications, Exemptions and Excuses" (April 17, 2015) http://www.uscourts.gov/FederalCourts/JuryService/JurorQualificaitons.aspx
- United States Courts. "Jury Service in Federal Courts" (April 17, 2015) http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/get-informed/federal-court-basics/jury-service-federal-courts.aspx
- Warner, Joel. "Runaway Juror: Can I use science to get out of jury duty?" Slate. Feb. 22, 2012 (April 17, 2015) http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2012/02/the_science_of_getting_out_of_jury_duty_.html