When people find out that I’m a jury consultant, they often ask for tips on getting out of jury duty. I usually tell them that there a two fairly certain ways of getting out of jury duty, but then I explain why they’d be very fortunate if they got to serve on a jury.
First of all, avoiding jury duty is not hard. While ignoring a jury summons is illegal and I would not advise anyone to break the law, very few venues enforce the laws requiring citizens to return their jury summons. So if you get a summons in the mail and ignore it, chances are you won’t hear anything more about it.
Second, even if you return the summons and are ordered to appear, the chances that you will be selected for a jury are relatively slim, especially if you do not want to serve. If jury service would be a significant personal or economic hardship for you, your business, or your family, the court will almost always excuse you. Simply requesting to be excused, even if you don’t have a significant hardship, is often enough, because no one – not the attorneys and not the court – wants a surly juror on the panel.
But if it’s at all possible for you to serve, I strongly suggest that you do. There are many benefits of serving on a jury, beyond the pride of doing one’s civic duty.
As part of my work, I have the opportunity to talk to many jurors after trial and almost unanimously, jurors report that their experiences were interesting and rewarding. The civil cases that go to a jury trial are often the most closely contested disputes, with evidence supporting both sides’ claims. Complex cases may also involve evidence and expert testimony from fields you know nothing about, so jurors often get crash courses from noted experts in areas such as engineering, chemistry, physics and economics. Most people find learning and interpreting this complex evidence to be a fun and challenging experience.
Jurors also report that witnessing the inner workings of the justice system (and democracy more generally) is a positive and empowering experience. Many people vote in elections, so a single vote in an election counts for very little. By comparison, each vote on a standard jury is one-twelfth of the total, and even more in venues that have smaller juries. So every juror has a considerable say over the outcome of a case that may determine the distribution of millions of dollars or the future of someone’s life. In other words, jury duty is an opportunity to sit in a position of power and responsibility that does not come along every day. As a result, jury service often changes the way people see not only our system of government, but also themselves. The nineteenth-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about our jury system and what jury service does for those who serve. He noted that by asking citizens to decide matters beyond their day-to-day routines, jury service “rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society.”
It’s good to rub that “rust” off every now and then, and to do something outside the norm. Serving on a jury asks you to absorb new information, to think, to deliberate and to make decisions outside your daily routine. In the jury you'll meet new and interesting people who, despite their differences, share a common desire to do the right thing and to reach a just decision.
So the next time a jury summons arrives in the mail, return it, and if called, appear. If you’re lucky enough to serve, you won’t be sorry you did.