Over the past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about jury duty. It’s on my mind because I was a second- tier victim of what I consider to be one of government’s most outdated, inefficient, and burdensome requirements of its citizenry.
For five days last month, I held schedules in abeyance, put friends on standby, placed holds on (or cancelled) important meetings, and sat by the phone every day at 2:00 p.m., while anxiously waiting to hear if my son’s caregiver was going to be called for jury duty. I’m sure my frustration paled in comparison to my caregiver’s angst, who is responsible for watching not only my son, but three of her own kids under the age of 10. She was facing the loss of a week’s worth of wages and the hunt for someone to care for her children, on-demand, for the $40 per day court stipend she might receive—nearly impossible.
I like to think that I have a better-than-average respect for the legal profession, the judiciary and its history and tradition. My mom’s an attorney and my dad is a former judge. However, in spite of this (or possibly because of it), I think the system could use some improvement—and the jury selection process is one area where the courts could use a substantial reality check. Here’s why:
The Juror Notification and Identification Process Is Flawed—While this process might be convenient for the court, it isn’t for anyone else. If you are self-employed, employed by a small business, or a dependent caregiver, a week (or more) out of your time, lost earnings, and lost productivity constitute a formidable hardship—which may or may not be recognized by the court by being excused or being offered a small stipend. Presently, most courts in Michigan randomly select jurors from the state driver license and ID file. Your number comes up, you fill out a questionnaire, and you start the waiting game to become a “representative” cross section on a jury.
But what if the system was more pragmatic and citizen-friendly? What about a system that empowered the public to take part in government when they were willing and able on their terms? A system that invited more predictability—and maybe even allowed jurors to self-schedule rather than be summoned?
Beyond self-scheduling, what about self-identifying? I agree that the best representative juries shouldn’t be packed with professional jurors. But what about those people who would be willing to serve two or three or even four times a year? Would that truly harm the system?
Our Court Scheduling Is Flawed—If serving on a jury is one of the responsibilities of living in a free society, and we want to engage citizens in government, then government needs to look at how and when the citizenry is best able to perform this duty. When jury trials are held between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., we impact the economic engine of citizens, employers, and the system of supports working families use such as day care.
Again, what about a system that would allow jurors to elect times and locations that work best for them? Even better—why can’t trial courts be held on the weekends? Or between 5:00 and 9:00 p.m.? A radical concept to be sure, but certainly not unprecedented when you look at the popularity of offering government services through retail outlets that operate outside of the 9–5 model.
The Punitive Nature of Service Invites Abuse—Courts around the state struggle with the problem of getting jurors to respond to their summons—so much so that in Federal District Court of Eastern Michigan, several lawsuits have been filed contending that defendants can’t get a fair trial based on the disproportionate makeup of jury pools (or “wheels” as they are referred to in federal court). The problem isn’t uncommon in state court either—where prospective jurors are routinely threatened with contempt for failure to respond to a summons.
The lack of a clear, consistent approach to what constitutes service (Where? When? How long?) what factors excuse service (an issue of administrator/judicial discretion which varies widely) and service reimbursements (stipends routinely less than the federal minimum wage) invites abuse of the system. If you want the citizenry to treat jury duty respectfully and professionally—then respect their time and effort in the same way.
What the system needs is a fairer, more balanced approach to selecting jurors—one which encourages citizens to engage in the process and reduces the obstacles to service. In an era of technological innovation, we can certainly do better than asking citizens to sit by the phone each day at 2:00 p.m.
By Emily Houk