A I just finished a jury trial last week. The trial was notable for the number of prospective jurors who requested to be excused for hardships.
Jury service is the only obligation of citizenship that strikes randomly and requires positive effort on the individual’s behalf. Taxes are uniform like death, but jury service is like lightning, and can strike twice in the same place. I have met prospective jurors in trials who served over four times in the past ten years and also individuals who have lived in the county for forty years and yet never been called for service.
The requirements for jury service in California are United States citizenship, residence in the county in which the court sits and the ability to pay attention and understand the proceedings.
Jury service starts in a large room somewhere in the courthouse. They take roll and often show a video explaining the process. A number of the prospective jurors would be sent to a courtroom where a trial is starting. The court clerk will administer an oath requiring everyone to truthfully answer questions designed to determine whether they could serve in that case.
The process, called “voir dire,” (pronounced “vwor deer”) meaning, in old French, to speak the truth, begins in earnest when, the judge comes out and addresses the group. The judge asks questions and then lets the attorney from each side ask more questions. The questioning is designed to flush out biases and determine whether each juror is a good fit for the case.
No one wants to serve on the jury at the outset, but service has its rewards. I have had many jurors tell me after a trial that they thoroughly enjoyed the experience and learned a great deal about the justice system as a consequence of their service.
I am often asked how to avoid jury service. To those people I say that jury service is rewarding, but that the best way to avoid it is to express such a bias that you could not be fair to both sides in the case. If, for example, in a drug case, you say that you believe that all drugs should be legal and that the government should give free samples of marijuana to everyone, you could avoid service. Or, in a case about police brutality, you express your belief that police are never untruthful, you will probably be excluded. Strong opinions coupled with an inability to set them aside and be impartial will almost always result in exclusion from jury service.
The qualifications for serving as a trial juror are minimal. Service can often be very rewarding. Escaping service is easy, but you may miss out on an excellent opportunity to participate in our society and our government.
Naresh Rajan is an attorney in San Mateo County. Emailnrajanlaw@gmail.com.