Op-Ed: Looking Out for America’s Jurors
According to the National Center for State Courts, each year approximately 5 million Americans receive summonses and report for jury duty. About a million of them are selected to serve on one of the estimated 80,000 jury trials that take place every year. Together, simply by answering the call to duty, they are exercising one of our society’s oldest, most important, and quintessentially democratic responsibilities.
Unfortunately, for every person who answers the call, too many do not. Too many can ill afford to take time off work; or see high profile, seemingly endless trials like the Scott Peterson case and fear being sequestered for months on end; or worry about their privacy. While most Americans have a profound belief and trust in the jury system, not enough has been done to address these and other concerns that make it harder for many to serve.
We need to do everything possible to make it easier for people to report for jury duty when called, to make it convenient and comfortable while they wait, to aid their understanding of the evidence once they are selected, to help them reach well-reasoned and fair verdicts, and to protect their privacy all along the way.
Since becoming ABA president earlier this year, helping the American juror has been my overarching concern. This week, I had the pleasure of presenting Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with proposed new “Principles for Juries and Jury Trials.” The result of six months of intensive work, these principles are intended to bring the American jury service into the 21st century.
They aim to make it easier for people to report for jury duty by, for example, urging that employers be barred by law from discharging, laying off or denying advancement opportunities to employees who take time off work for jury service or from requiring them to use leave or vacation time to do so. They also urge jurisdictions to lessen the financial impact jury duty has on many people by increasing the compensation provided to jurors who do report.
Once they report for duty, the principles aim to ameliorate the privacy concerns that prompt many to stay home. For example, They call on jurisdictions to clarify the right of jurors to be questioned only about relevant subjects, to know how the information they provide will be used, and to answer sensitive questions privately.
The principles also seek to help jurors during their deliberations. They call for rules allowing jurors to submit written questions that they would like the judge to ask a witness, allowing jurors to discuss the case they are hearing while the case is ongoing, so long as all jurors are present for the discussion, and to be given written copies of jury instructions to take with them into deliberations.
Finally, when the trial has concluded, the principles urge judges to inform jurors of their right to talk to anyone about the case – and the right to refuse to talk to anyone, including the lawyers and the press – and to ask the court’s help if anyone persists in questioning them about their service over their objection.
Together, the “Principles for Juries and Jury Trials” aim to spark a dialogue about how to decrease the percentage of people who view jury duty as a burden and increase the number of people who report when summoned. This could hardly be more important. Next to voting, serving on a jury is our most fundamental interaction with the democratic process that shapes our society, and one of the most direct ways our citizens get involved in their communities. We owe it to our fellow citizens to make it as easy as possible to do so.