Trial by Jury, Part 1: Jury Selection
- I recently served as the foreperson for a jury and wanted to share what I've learned about the US legal system in the process. I've divided this write-up into three parts: "Part 1: Jury Selection" (this post), "Part 2: The Trial" , and "Part 3: The Verdict".
- Jury selection begins with a random sample of local adult citizens, followed by the process of voir dire, where potential jurors are questioned to form a jury with as little bias as possible.
- There are escape hatches available if serving on a jury would be an economic hardship for you.
- I've purposely omitted the details of my particular case, as I want the focus to be on the system and process overall. I'm also writing from the perspective of a case that played out in a state-level court system in the United States. Your experience will vary with other jurisdictions.
The notice in the mail came in bold black and red: "YOU HAVE BEEN SUMMONED FOR JURY SERVICE".
I had just come back from a trip abroad, and was a little annoyed. I was looking forward to settling back into things. Still, I thought, it would just be checking the court's website once a day for a week. That's what had always happened before, and I never had to appear in-person. No big deal.
Instead, on the second-to-last day of my on-call week, I was asked to report in-person the next day. From there, I was seated in the first group of prospective jurors, selected, and sworn in. I ended up being elected as the foreperson for the jury and learned a ton about how the trial process works and why.
Here's how it played out and what I would recommend for anyone facing jury duty.
How does one end up (or not) on a jury?
In the United States, jurors are of-age citizens randomly selected from vehicle and voter registrations within the local region. They receive summons in the mail, and then may be asked to report in-person or asked to check in by phone/website to see if they need to report.
Once you show up in-person, you'll check in and watch a short orientation video that explains the trial process and the role a jury plays in it. Then you sit and wait until you're called up or sent home. Most people associate jury duty summons with this: waiting in the jury assembly room for a day (it usually has Wi-Fi and restrooms) and then going home. The initial pool at this stage is hundreds of people, and only ~14 are needed, so your overall chances of being selected are low.
Things get interesting if you do get called into a courtroom. Now a smaller pool of about 100 people file in the past the attorneys for both sides, who remain respectfully standing until everyone is seated. Then the court clerk calls the courtroom to order, with everyone standing back up as the judge appears before sitting back down.
First, the judge will thank everyone for appearing, give basic background on the case, and provide an estimate for how long the trial would last. This is to let you decide whether you would face hardships from serving on the jury. If you would, you fill out a form under penalty of perjury (which is basically lying when you officially swore not to lie) and the judge evaluates whether your situation meets specific requirements. Notably, providing childcare or eldercare alone is not usually a sufficient reason to be excused from jury service.
(If you would face a hardship from even appearing for jury selection for a day, that's handled beforehand by calling or writing into the court according to their specific process)
Perhaps 10% of my group were excused for hardships at this point.
In addition, all potential jurors are ordered by the judge to not discuss or research the case with anyone. This order holds until you're sent home (if not selected) or the end of the trial (if selected).
Next, a group of 20-30 prospective jurors is randomly called up and seated into numbered chairs. At this point, you might receive a written questionnaire to fill out, or a list of questions to answer aloud as the judge calls on you to introduce yourself.
This process is called voir dire, Anglo-Norman for "to speak the truth" [folk-etymology]. The goal is to create as non-biased a jury as possible.
Some common initial questions include:
- Your name
- Your age
- Your occupation
- The age and occupations of any adults living with you
- The age and occupations of any children you have
- Whether you've had interactions with law enforcement before, and (very briefly) how they went: briefly detained, arrested, charges dropped, plea bargain, convicted, etc.
- Whether there is any other reason you might be biased in this case, e.g., you know one of the parties or attorneys involved, you have relevant specialized training/education, etc.
The judge will ask follow-up questions as needed, and they'll generally try to avoid overly personal ones.
Then the attorneys for both sides (often just called "counsel" by the judge) have the right to question prospective jurors. In some states, counsel also have a "right of peremptory challenge", where they can excuse a limited number of jurors without specific justification. This is controversial, as this can be used to create a jury biased by innate characteristics. I did not personally observe this during my jury's voir dire process, but see it as a totally possible failure mode. This is an area of active debate and reform.
The dismissal itself is very polite once it's given, as it is for most people: "The court/defense/prosecution would like to thank and excuse Juror #7. Thank you for your service."
Now, can you act out and say outrageous things to try to avoid jury service, like the hilarious illustrations from this WikiHow article? Yes, but you're just going to look ridiculous. The judge is going to berate you for being puerile and the whole room is going to give you all sorts of looks. No one in my 100-person candidate pool tried to pull such shenanigans. It's obvious in the moment how inappropriate that would be.
Again: if you can serve without economic hardship, you should! You're helping out someone who would literally not be able to afford being there.
As prospective jurors are excused, replacements will be drawn at random. Eventually, enough people will have gone through voir dire and if the court and counsel are satisfied, the first 6-12 are sworn in as jurors, and the next 2+ as alternate jurors (using a slightly modified oath). Your seat number determines your fate, so if you're seated in the first 14+ people, you have a high probability of being selected.
This is your first chance to see who your fellow jurors may be. They are meant to be a representative subset of your local community, and mine was diverse in all the ways. We had our oath in common though, and everyone took it seriously. The oath itself felt much more weighty than I expected. It's the first time I've ever sworn a formal oath and I viscerally felt why humanity has used oaths for millennia. You really do feel the importance of the responsibilities you're taking on.
Aside: What happens if you do not show up, you may ask? It depends on your local laws, but the first miss is usually excusable, perhaps with some small fine. Later misses incur larger penalties and if your absenteeism is extreme, a judge will issue a warrant for your arrest and you'll face jail-time. Don't do that. Just show up, as there are standardized ways to exit if you have to, as described above.
(Note: there are additional steps that happen before, during, and after the trial process for both civil and criminal cases. For the sake of clarity, I am omitting them here and writing purely from the perspective of a juror in a state-level trial. Federal trials differ. If there's interest, I can do a write-up of the full legal lifecycle later on.)
Read the rest of the series: "Part 1: Jury Selection", "Part 2: The Trial" , "Part 3: The Verdict".
[folk-etymology]: Having taken AP French in high school, I thought voir dire was "to see what is said", but this phrase comes from Anglo-Norman, which is a predecessor language to modern English. "To speak the truth" is thus the correct translation.