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Jury Duty - Is It Time For Reform?

Is America's jury system in need of reform? Should 90-somethings be receiving a jury summons? Should anyone having to close their business to serve be summoned?  Should there be a standard governing all courts?   Should we expect everyone to serve regardless of employment status or annual income? Should we allow jurors to use mobile devices? Should juries have mandated diversity? State and federal laws govern everything from juror age limits to employee rights during jury duty but they vary state to state. Are they up to date? What do you think? Does the jury system need 21st century reforms?

 

Jury summons are sent to over 13 million people in the U.S. each year --maybe you've received one. Were you willing and able to serve? If not, were you excused?  Many states excuse jurors starting at age 70.  One state excuses at 65. Yet other states have no age limitation and citizens are called regardless of age. Not yet 65 or 70? It's easy to find Internet articles about how to get out of a jury summons like this one that recommends you just claim you're biased whether or not you're biased about that particular case. In it the author acknowledges that serving is patriotic but he's committed to his work! Perhaps because of this attitude some smaller communities struggle to fill juries because people won't serve and, in one Houston suburb, courts report only 1 of 3 summoned respond. Are our attitudes moving away from noble ideas about jury duty and serving democracy?  If so, how will that impact justice? 

Though our attitudes may be changing state law isn't changing with us. States retain the historic view that jury duty is a patriotic responsibility. Compensation reflects that philosophy. Payment varies state to state. At one end of the scale Massachusetts pays nothing the first 3 days if a juror is self employed or unemployed yet New Mexico pays the federal minimum wage to all. Some states pay more daily depending on trial length. In general though jurors must be willing to sacrifice at least one week's pay to serve the country and recent statistics show that many Americans of all ages and economic levels can't afford to do that. The American Tort Reform, an organization founded in 1986 that advocates nationally for repairing the civil justice system and promoting jury reform, notes that economics, state to state governance, and trial length all impact the ability to assemble a jury and ensure a fair trial. Among other reforms they advocate that employers pay for the first ten days of jury duty.

Successful attorneys analyze jury composition and bias because it impacts trial outcomes.  According to a recent study on race and convictions discussed in the Washington Post:  "... racial composition of the jury has a large effect on conviction rates. In cases with no black members of the jury pool, black defendants were convicted 81 percent of the time, while white defendants were convicted 66 percent of the time." Did you know there is also a relation between juror age and conviction rates? One study found that juries with an average age of 50 or higher convict defendants 79% of the time! Do we need mandated diversity on juries to ensure balanced judgement?

Intentional reform of juries could help perfect the justice system however in this century we are undergoing perhaps the greatest unintentional reform on juries. The cause? Changing political perspectives and mobile technology.  The Jury Expert, a legal blog covering issues on jury duty, the changing complexion of jurors and jury impacts on justice write, in their article "Demographic Roulette: What was once a bad idea has gotten worse," that the collapse of simply Left or Right political views in America are creating a new breed of issues based jurors with more nuanced feelings about convictions which pressures attorneys to conduct more investigation during voir dire (jury selection). How are changing politics impacting justice? Check out the article if you're interested in how you might be profiled during jury selection.

Mobile devices are putting enormous pressure on courts to ensure no outside contact or influence occurs during trials or deliberations. Jurors currently must obey rules about digital/mobile access during a trial no: blogging, googling, e-mailing, Facebooking, texting or tweeting.  In the article Jurors Googling and Blogging- Can a Juror's Pledge Stop Them, author Diane Wiley writes, "After jurors are selected and are instructed by the judge, many of them are overwhelmed with information. They are thinking about what their service is going to mean for their schedules, their families, and even whether they want to be there. Some are concerned about how serious the responsibility is and whether they are really qualified. Others are just so used to blogging, tweeting, texting and Facebooking about their every move and checking their phones or iPads the minute they have a question about something, they don’t even think about what they are doing. It’s habit and it’s automatic."  But digital devices cut both ways and, as jurors become more nuanced, their digital lives are becoming the ultimate target for juror profiling. The article, Can You Hear Me Now?, points out that technology is a multi headed problem for the courts impacting privacy, court proceedings, security, and efficiency. 

Now, especially, as outside forces begin to shape juror attitudes and behaviors its time for greater education on the value of our unique jury system. We need more support for jurors as they perform the hard work that powers our democracy. We need jury system reforms that create equitable service, even standards state to state, and greater diversity in jury selection. If we stop resisting digital incursions in justice could we find new ways to use technology to improve jury deliberations? Ultimately, the democratic experiment is always in need of maintenance and this moment in time is ideal.

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