Juries in the 21st Century

Tocqueville noted in the 1800’s that the jury is an important American judicial and political institution.  The jury serves several purposes: implementing justice, representing the citizen voice, civic education and popular sovereignty; the latter, according to Toqueville, comes from placing governmental decisions in “the hands of the governed, or of a portion of the governed, and not in that of the government”.[1]   The jury is a tradition of our civil and criminal justice system and serving on the jury is a civic duty and right.  Indeed, minorities and women fought for the right to serve on juries, seeing this form of participation as fundamental to full citizenship.

Today, however, serving on a jury is generally equated with having a tooth pulled or, perhaps, a root canal.  In some courts, empaneling a jury is a time consuming and difficult task.  As the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Law Blog reports, it took one judge “more than three hours to gather a pool of 22 prospective jurors…”.[2]  This judge, extremely aggravated by the lack of response to jury summonses, is now requiring that all jurors failing to appear in response to a jury summons must appear in court and explain their absence.  The judge is willing to fine each juror without a legitimate excuse $100.00 or send them to jail for six months.  The same blog post notes that a panel of judges in Texas will hear from almost 300 jurors for failing to appear and determine fines and jail time for those who cannot provide a legitimate excuse.

Given the clear deterioration of the purposive benefits of jury duty for individuals, can juries still provide the bulwark against overzealous attorneys or tyrannical judges?  If jurors are annoyed or angered by this imposition on their time, does jury duty still provide an educational experience about the value of citizen participation?  If those skipping jury duty do so because they are loath to miss work and lose their pay for that day as suggested by the WSJ blog, is the jury system as it works today failing in representation as well?  The individuals willing to take a day to answer the summons are less likely, given these conditions, to be a mirror of the demographics of the locality.  If it takes of the imposition of heavy fines or significant jail time to persuade citizens to fulfill their jury duty, how can jury duty serve the judicial and political purposes so eloquently described by Toqueville?

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