It’s In Your Court

By JUDGE STEVE HALSEY

The week of May 7, 2012, was recognized as Juror Appreciation Week in Minnesota. In these difficult economic times, judges and court administrators are keenly aware of the additional financial stresses that may accompany a citizen’s jury duty. Therefore, we express our thanks to our jurors of the past year.

In recognition that many readers might never have been called to jury duty, this is a re-issue of an article I wrote in 2007 and 2009.

So, you picked up your mail and found an official-looking letter from your local district court administrator. Opening the envelope, you discover a summons for jury duty. What is your initial reaction?

n Excitement: Good for you. You might have been a voter or holder of a drivers’ license or State Identification Card for years, but have never been called to jury duty until now. You feel that jury duty is your responsibility as an American and Minnesota citizen

n Dread: My employer is going to be upset. There is no one else to do my job. It’s my busiest time of year. Who else is going to care for my daycare children? I have too much to do. All are understandable first reactions. If someone called to jury duty has a commitment that they simply cannot change, such as medical treatment or a scheduled trip, they can request the court administrator to schedule their jury duty at another time.

n Bewilderment: You are pleased to serve on a jury but have questions about what will happen. As a juror, you will watch a video explaining the basics of jury duty. This information is also available on the state court website at http://www.mncourts.gov/?page=319.

A growing problem in courts nationwide is summoned jurors failing to appear at the court for jury service. Occasionally, sitting jurors fail to return during the middle of a jury trial. That happened in U.S. District Court in Illinois when a medical device salesman chose to go on a business trip in the middle of his jury service. The presiding judge, U.S. District Judge James Holderman, found the salesman contempt of court and made the follow comments about jury service:

"Much has been said, of course, of the role the jury plays as ‘the very palladium of free government’ and the ‘principal Bulwark of our liberties,’ or about the jury’s ancient origins in the democratic government of Athens and its enshrinement in Magna Carta, that great font of Western liberty. Much also has been said about ‘the blood and treasure it has cost to get and keep this birthright of every American,’ and about the role the jury played in the resistance against the English oppression and as a spark for the American Revolution.’

"Perhaps it has been too little emphasized, however, that every potential juror is crucial to the ability of the jury as an institution to perform its functions successfully. A juror might think that the business of justice can proceed without him, that other citizens can carry out his jury responsibilities just as well as he, that his own business interests are more vital than his jury service, and that he is therefore justified in pursuing his own good rather than contributing to the common weal.

"But the exceptional genius of the jury system is that it collects and harmonizes the experiences of people from every walk of life, such that the removal of certain citizens from the pool of potential jurors jeopardizes the integrity of the jury’s proceedings. The jury does not operate in the realm of cold logic, applying abstract reason to the lifeless maxims of the law. It does not, in short, perform a task that could be done just as well by one person as another. To the contrary, the jury makes decisions through its vital collective wisdom, bringing practical judgment accumulated through diverse experiences to bear on the messy realities of human life. Each perspective is unique, and so valuable that the systematic exclusion of any one may disrupt the balance that is vital for a fair and just verdict.

"All perspectives are vital for that task, so the court must be zealous to ensure the participation of people from all walks of life. Were the pressing needs of private business sufficient to excuse a prospective juror from service, the court would be left with a venire of only the unemployed and the retired. The resulting jury and its deliberations would be correspondingly impoverished to the extent that the jury would lack the unique insights of those citizens whose obligations preclude them from serving without inconvenience.

"Indeed, the jury is one of the purest embodiments of democracy in the modern age, in that it involves true deliberation by the people, and not merely the tabulation of votes. If the decision of a jury should be given to experts, so too should all questions of government. An abdication of the right to serve on a jury is nothing less than an abdication of the right to self-government.

So if you receive a jury summons, please consider first your duty to your fellow citizens, state and nation, rather than how you may avoid jury duty. The blood of thousands of Americans has been shed in far-off lands so that your right to a jury trial is preserved. It is your duty. Again, we thank you if you have served on a jury in the past.

Judge Steve Halsey presides in Wright County District Court and is chambered in Buffalo.

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