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Op-Ed: Jury Duty: Answering the Call to Serve

by H. Thomas Wells Jr., President, _

Americans have the power to exercise one of our nation’s paramount democratic responsibilities.  They can serve on a jury.

A Harris Poll commissioned by the _ revealed that the majority of the people surveyed agree that jury duty is an important civic responsibility.  It remains crucial to the function of our democracy that we encourage as many people as possible to respond if they are called for service.

Each year, millions of Americans receive the call to serve, and they do. According to the National Center for State Courts, about a million people serve on some 80,000 jury trials per year in the United States.  The ABA wants to make it as easy as possible for more Americans to serve their country in this way.  To that end, the ABA’s Commission on the American Jury Project developed dozens of guiding principles for juries and jury trials.  The Commission is working state by state to encourage courts across the country to adopt new jury practices and standards.

The principles take into account how people feel about answering personal questions in public, as well as concerns about their jobs.  Be honest now — how many of you have received a jury service request and were overcome with dread at the thought of reporting for duty? Yet, other than voting, serving on a jury is one of the few activities that gives us direct contact with the fundamentals of our democracy.  The sixth and seventh amendments to the U.S. Constitution provide for rights to a jury trial.  Our nation’s courts depend on the active participation of the people of this country.

In order to make it easier for Americans to serve as jurors, we advocate for the shortest possible jury service as long as the needs of the courts are being met; for the preservation of juror privacy through juror-screening inquiries that are relevant only to the trial and by allowing jurors to answer sensitive questions privately; and for the protection of employees, by prohibiting employers from penalizing those who miss work because of jury service.

We want to help jurors do the best job they can for our nation’s courts.  For example, our principles call for specific juror instruction and orientation so that jurors will have an increased understanding of the judicial system.  We also recommend that jurors be allowed to take notes during the trial and, in certain cases, be allowed to submit written questions for witnesses.

When a trial is over, we believe courts should give jurors legally permissible post-verdict advice.  That means, we encourage court personnel to engage in conversations with the jurors so that they know about their rights to discuss (or not discuss) the case with anyone, including the lawyers or the media.

We hope that these principles foster a better understanding of, and keener interest in, jury duty as we work on improving jury practice and preserving the right to trial by jury.

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