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So I Got Called to Jury Duty...

Lawyers and judges are not immune to from getting called jury duty, and it happened to me recently. To say that I had mixed feelings about it is an understatement. “I don’t have time for this”, was honestly my first reaction. Then I felt guilt, since I am not only a lawyer, but a member of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA), which is dedicated “to the constitutional rights of open access to the courts” for everyone. Lofty words, but in real life do they matter?

Ever since I was a Boy Scout, I have been taught to think of jury service as one of the “pillars” of our free society, alongside voting, military service, and any other activity depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting. It is, but when “real life” hits one of those pillars, the natural reaction is to take evasive action. I am a lawyer, and therefore my time is demanded by many other people who need me to solve their problems. They are in pain, tired, out of money, and confused by what they have to go through, all because someone else was careless and caused their injury. I realized that even though jury service could take me away, I owed it to my clients to participate in the system, and make sure it still works. I often preach that the civil trial system is the only thing that keeps insurance companies from giving even lower settlement offers than they already do. If I don’t do my part to uphold this system, who will?

Just for the record, jury service is compulsive. You are sent a “summons” in the mail, usually because you are a registered voter or got a driver’s license/ID card at the BMV. I’ve never heard of a judge sending the sheriff to arrest someone who no-shows jury service, but most people comply. Fortunately, the government takes your time and privacy more seriously these days, at least on this subject. Since many jury trials, both civil and criminal, settle “at the last minute”, jurors are told after 5 p.m. the night beforehand whether the trial is “on” or “off”. At the juror’s choice, notice comes via text, email, or phone. In Allen County, you are in the pool of potential jurors until you actually show up at the courthouse. If you come downtown once, your service is complete even if you are not put on an actual jury. You fill out a questionnaire in advance, and your name is not known to the lawyers/parties/judges. I was “juror 43”. Also, the courthouse has a security check-in, and cell phones (or any device that can take photographs) are not allowed. This is to keep jurors from being photographed. Only courthouse staff, law enforcement, attorneys, and judges may take a cell phone into the courthouse, and even then only with the special photo ID.

Potential jurors called to the courthouse are shown a brief orientation video. Our group (the “venire”) consisted of about 60 people. We were moved to one of the courtrooms, and 12 people were chosen at random by the bailiff to sit in the jury box for this criminal case (most civil juries, where no one goes to jail, consist of only 6-7 jurors). The judge read the names of the parties and witnesses, and asked some general “screening” questions to make sure no obvious conflicts existed. The lawyers were then allowed to “voir dire” the jury, which literally means that they asked the jurors to “speak the truth”. The lawyers looked for potential biases against their case, but also “planted some seeds” for their arguments (i.e., “juror number 25, if your child was injured, what would you do?”). Each side is typically allowed three “peremptory” strikes, which allows dismissal of up to three people for any reason. They also are allowed to ask the judge to strike jurors “for cause” if that juror has said something that indicates an unfair bias. The judge must decide whether the “cause” strike is valid. Excused jurors were replaced by others in the pool. Pool members watch the initial questions and answers, so the replacements are usually just asked “did you have any response to the prior questions?” Anyone not stricken was firmly on the jury. The process continued until 12 people were selected, which took about two hours.

Several people were excused for good personal reasons (“I’m the only one who takes care of my children/elderly mother”). Some excuses were lame, and just sounded like the person wanted out. Most of the pool took jury service very seriously. The prevailing attitude seemed to be: “Yes, we were drafted away from our normal lives, but now that we’re here let’s do the job”. I eventually got called into the jury box, but was quickly recognized as a lawyer and excused. The judge may have done this out of “professional courtesy”, although no one is ever officially told why they are excused. It is quite possible that one of the lawyers was concerned about a lawyer on the jury having too much influence. By then I was actually interested in serving, and finding out more about the case. A combination of disappointment and relief swept over me as I walked out of the courthouse, and I later heard that the trial resulted in a conviction after two days.

Potential jurors who physically report to the courthouse are paid $15 plus mileage. Jurors who actually serve are paid $40 per day plus mileage, and meals are provided. Parking is on your own “dime”. Takeaways from the experience:

  • Jury service is still a necessary “pillar” of our system (Mr. Rockwell was right);

  • The court staff tries very hard to lessen the inconvenience to jurors;

  • Jury trials are extremely important to the parties involved. Someone’s life or liberty may be at stake. In civil cases the parties may have waited years to get their dispute resolved;

  • Don’t take your cell phone to the courthouse unless you have a badge;

  • Always respect people who show up for jury service. No one wants to be there, but most understand that this is a necessary part of our system;

  • Someday it could be YOU or a loved one who needs a fair, focused and unbiased jury to resolve an important dispute, or avoid going to jail.

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