I’ve Been Summoned for Jury Duty. Now What?

By: Christopher A. Powers

What do you think of when you hear the words “jury duty”? To many people, the term “jury duty” brings to mind a civic obligation; a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center Survey found that roughly two-thirds of American adults believe that serving on a jury “is part of what it means to be a good citizen.” (Link to: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/24/jury-duty-is-rare-but-most-americans-see-it-as-part-of-good-citizenship/). To other people, the term “jury duty” means potential excitement and suspense of a dramatic trial like the ones portrayed on television. To the most unwell among us, the term “jury duty” prompts memories of the 1995 Pauly Shore movie of the same name. (Link to: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113500/)

  • No matter what gets called to mind, it’s likely that the thought is not based on actual jury experience. (Link to: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-are-the-chances-of-serving-on-a-jury/). According to the Pew Research survey cited above, only about 15% of American adults receive a jury summons each year. Among those individuals, only 5% actually make it to a jury box. Extrapolating the numbers, that means only about 0.75% of the adult population actually serves on a jury. That’s one of the main reasons why Mackenzie Hughes attorneys often get questions from family, friends, and clients about what to expect from jury service. Here are a few simple things you should do if you receive a jury summons.
  • Figure out what is being asked of you. Is the summons from federal court or state court? Is it for a petit jury or grand jury? Depending on the answer to these questions, the length of time and location for service will be different.
  • Respond to the summons. If you receive a jury summons, the absolute worst thing you can do is ignore it. Skipping jury duty may result in civil or criminal penalties. Plus, skipping doesn’t relieve you of your service; it merely puts you onto a new list for future service. Repeat skippers are often treated even more harshly by the court. Of course, if you truly have a legitimate reason for not serving at the time requested, each summoned juror is permitted to postpone service one time without consequence by calling the court at least one week before the scheduled date.
  • Alert your employer. Do not worry about missing work to serve on a jury. It is illegal for an employer to punish an employee through discharge; forced use of vacation, personal or sick time; scheduling changes designed to penalize; or requiring make up time for serving on a jury. It is recommended, although not mandatory, that employers fully compensate employees who serve on jury duty. At the very least, an employer is obligated to pay the jury fee of $40 for each day (up to three days) of jury service.
  • Show up. Although some states have exemptions for active military personnel or civic servants such as firefighters, in New York state there are no automatic exemptions or excuses from jury service; every eligible person is supposed to serve. Eligible people must meet all of the following criteria: (1) be a U.S. citizen, (2) be at least 18 years old, (3) reside in the county in which they are summoned to serve; (4) be capable of communicating in English, and (5) have never been convicted of a felony. So if you meet these requirements, you could face penalties if you do not appear.
  • Check the weather. In Upstate New York, there is always the possibility of a weather emergency, particularly in winter (which only feels like it lasts all year). Information about court closings is available from local news sources or by logging into http://www.nyjuror.gov.
  • Be honest. Even if you appear for jury duty, it is still unlikely that you will be chosen to sit on a jury for trial. The jury selection process, known as voir dire, is designed to weed out jurors who harbor biases, whether implicitly or explicitly, that would render the trial unfair. For a petit jury, the jury pool of several dozen people gets reduced to 12. Depending on the nature of the case, prospective jurors may be asked questions about their beliefs and experiences. For example, jurors in a criminal prosecution may be asked if they have relatives in law enforcement (such jurors may have an implicit bias toward police) or if they’ve ever been arrested or had dealings with law enforcement (such jurors may have implicit bias against police). In a civil case, some questions might be designed to make sure a potential juror does not have a conflict of interest with the parties or issues involved. No doubt such personal questions can be uncomfortable but it is best to be upfront and honest to make sure the trial is as fair as possible. Do not make up stories or embellish the truth to try to get out of serving, there will be follow up questions and the truth will eventually come out anyway.
  • Be prepared for what to expect. The “Petit Juror’s Handbook” prepared by the New York State Unified Court System provides a nice overview of the steps of a case and what a juror can expect. Reviewing this document beforehand can relieve some of the potential anxiety associated with jury duty. Visit https://www.nyjuror.gov/pdfs/hb_Petit.pdf to download a copy.
  • Have an open mind. If you are empaneled on the jury, be sure to listen to the proceedings and assess the evidence honestly. Do not let pre-existing thoughts or evidence sway your thinking. It is a common myth that jurors must be completely ignorant of the facts of a case to be seated on a jury. In today’s age that is nearly impossible, and courts have responded by requiring only the ability to keep an open mind. (See, e.g., Murphy v. Florida, 421 U.S. 794, 799-800 (1975) (“The constitutional standard of fairness requires that a defendant have a panel of impartial, indifferent jurors. Qualified jurors need not be totally ignorant of the facts and issues involved.”)) Jurors, however, are not permitted to do outside research and are expected to let the judge guide them on what to do. Misconduct is punishable as contempt of court.
  • Ask for proof of service. When the trial is over, ask for a proof of service form. This will provide proof that you were actually in jury service to provide to a skeptical employer. A proof of service form can also be helpful in the event you get called again before your time comes. A person who serves in a federal or state court in New York will normally not be required to serve again for at least six years. (http://www.nyjuror.gov/pdfs/hb_ee.pdf)

Obviously, there is much more that goes in to the important function of jury service than can be explained in a simple blog post. If you have further questions, you can consult the state-provided guides at www.nyjuror.gov. Hopefully this short primer will help next time you are asked to fulfill your Constitutional obligation.