Received a Jury Notice? What Are Your Responsibilities?

William H. Shawn

Co-Managing Partner, ShawnCoulson

If you receive a jury notice in the mail, you may wonder what it means for you. Can you be excused due to family responsibilities? Can you delay serving because of a big project at work? Will the case be criminal, civil, federal or state? Can you get fired for missing work?

This article addresses these issues and what a person’s responsibilities are as a juror.

Importance, History and Constitutional Foundations

The jury, as an institution, has a long and distinguished history. As early as the English Magna Carta (1215), it was hailed as the protector of individual rights and liberties. In the U.S. Constitution, the Sixth Amendment provides for impartial jury trials in criminal cases. The Fifth Amendment guarantees the right to a grand jury indictment. And the Seventh Amendment provides for juries in certain civil cases.Jury service is a direct means for citizens to participate in the judicial process. Jurors make decisions that have an impact on individuals’ lives, property and liberty.

Legal, Financial and Personal Concerns of Prospective JurorsAlthough some people find receiving a jury notice disrupting, society considers jury duty so important to running a democracy that the failure to report to the courthouse when summoned can result in a fine and/or imprisonment. Moreover, federal law prohibits employers from firing or taking adverse action against individuals for participating in jury service.

When on a jury, jurors must not discuss the case with anyone except fellow jurors throughout the trial process. After the trial, jurors are under no obligation to talk about their experience with others, including the media. Jurors also are not prohibited from talking about their jury experience. Each juror has a choice.

Reporting to the Right Courthouse

As you may know, there are two different court systems within the United States:

The federal court system hears cases based on the U.S. Constitution and statutes passed by Congress.

The state court system hears cases based on state constitutions and statutes passed by state legislatures.

A jury notice will note what court you are attending. Further, if you are aware of the location of the courts and names of them you may be able to tell if it involves a civil case or a criminal case. However, sometimes it’s difficult to tell what kind of case until you arrive for the first day of jury duty.

Grand Jury or Petit Jury?

There are two types of jury systems in the United States:

  • The grand jury consists of 16 to 23 citizens, of which a certain number must be present to constitute a quorum for the transaction of business. Grand jurors analyze the evidence presented by a government attorney and then decide, based on this evidence, whether to indict (charge) an individual with a crime. Twelve or more grand jurors must vote in favor of the indictment before it may be returned.
  • A petit jury is a body of six to 12 citizens, and alternate jurors, which hears a criminal or civil case and decides the facts of the case.

Criminal or Civil Case: What’s the Difference?

In a criminal trial, an individual is accused of committing an offense — or crime — against society as a whole. Criminal juries consist of 12 jurors and alternates and a unanimous decision must be reached before a defendant is found “guilty.” The burden of proof is on the government and the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In a civil trial, litigants are seeking remedies for private wrongs that don’t, necessarily, have a broader social impact. Civil juries in federal court must consist of at least six jurors and the verdict must be unanimous unless the parties stipulate otherwise. The standard of proof is a “preponderance of the evidence” or “more true than not.” Not all civil cases are heard by jurors. Some are conducted before a judge.

From the Jury Pool to the Jury Box: Voir Dire

If summoned, will you actually serve on a jury? Not necessarily. During a process called voir dire, the trial judge and/or the lawyers for each side question potential jurors for bias. Each side has a certain number of peremptory challenges and an unlimited number of challenges for cause. A peremptory challenge allows a lawyer to dismiss a potential juror for any reason. A challenge for cause allows a party to dismiss a potential juror for possible biases.

Potential jurors who know someone involved in the case, who have information about the case, or who may have strong prejudices about the people or issues involved in the case typically will be excused by the judge.

The Judge and the Jury

The judge and the jury have specific roles in a judicial proceeding. The judge determines the appropriate law that should be applied to the case and the jury finds the facts in the case. At the end of the trial, the judge instructs the jury on the applicable law. While the jury must obey the judge’s instructions as to the law, the jury alone is responsible for determining the facts of the case.

Comparing Trial Juries and Grand Juries

If you were called to serve on a jury, would you know the difference between a trial jury (also referred to as a petit jury) and a grand jury? Here are the main features of the two types of juries in a nutshell.

 Trial JuryGrand Jury
Members6 to 1216 to 23
RoleTo decide whether the defendant injured the plaintiff (civil case) or committed the crime as charged (criminal case).To determine whether there is “probable cause” to believe that an individual has committed a crime and should be put on trial.
Public?Trials are generally public, but jury deliberations are private.Grand jury proceedings are not open to the public.
Right to appearA defendant has the right to appear, testify, and call witnesses on his or her behalf.A defendant and his or her attorney does not have the right to appear before the grand jury.
OutcomeThe final outcome is a verdict, in favor of the plaintiff or defendant in a civil case, or guilty/not guilty in a criminal case.The final outcome is a decision to indict (formally accuse) the defendant or not.

Can You Be Excused?

What if you think you cannot serve on a jury? Can you be excused? It depends. Each of the federal district courts has its own procedures and policies regarding excusing an individual from jury service. A court may allow excuses from service, when requested, to people from certain groups or occupations. For example, people over the age of 70 or those who serve as volunteer firefighters or ambulance crew members may be excused.

Under the federal Jury Act, a person may be excused on the grounds of “undue hardship or extreme inconvenience.” To be considered, “a juror should write a letter to the clerk of court requesting an excuse with an explanation of hardship,” according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. If a request is denied, it cannot be appealed to Congress or any other entity.

Some groups of people are exempt from federal jury service. They’re members of the armed forces on active duty, members of fire and police departments, and full-time “public officers” of federal state and local governments who are actively engaged in the performance of public duties.

Keep in mind that state courts have their own procedures and policies for excuses and exemptions. Courts may also allow you to postpone jury service until a more convenient time.

Service Qualifications
To be eligible to serve on a jury you must:
1. Be a United States citizen,
2. Be at least 18 years old,
3. Have resided in the judicial district for at least one year,
4. Have adequate proficiency in English,
5. Not have a disqualifying mental or physical condition,
6. Not be currently subject to felony charges, and
7. Never have been convicted of a felony (unless civil rights have been legally restored).
How Jurors Are Chosen and What They’re Paid
In federal courts, potential jurors are chosen from a pool generated by random selection of citizens’ names from:
1. Lists of registered voters, or
2. Combined lists of voters and people with driver’s licenses, in the judicial district.
Potential jurors are asked to complete questionnaires to help determine whether they are qualified to serve. The court reviews the questionnaires and randomly selects individuals to be summoned to appear for jury duty. The goal of these methods is to ensure jurors represent the community, without regard to race, gender, national origin, age or political affiliation.
Jurors are paid for their service and there are protections for employees. The amounts depend on the type of case. For example, citizens serving on a federal petit jury are paid $40 a day (up to $50 a day after serving 10 days on a trial). They are also reimbursed fees for reasonable transportation expenses and parking and may receive an allowance for meals and lodging if they are required to stay overnight.
An employer may continue an employee’s salary during all or part of jury service, but federal law doesn’t require this. The Jury Act does forbid employers from firing, intimidating or coercing employees because of federal jury service.