June 10, 2016
Wednesday morning I went to G.A. 7, the court in Meriden. Unlike just about every other time that I have gone there, I was not going for one of my cases. I was summoned there for jury duty. When I received my jury summons months ago, I confirmed my attendance and put it in my calendar. I checked online the night before and found that I was needed.
I wasn’t expecting to be selected as a juror. If it was a criminal trial, I would probably be disqualified because I handle criminal cases (and have several pending) G.A. 7 regularly, and also have working relationships with the State’s Attorneys and many fellow defense attorneys. If it were a civil, personal injury case, I probably wouldn’t be selected because I worked for a plaintiff’s firm in the past. That would be if I didn’t get released because of time commitments.
There are only a few disqualifications allowed by law. They include being too young (under 18), having a recent felony conviction or a pending felony case, no longer being a resident of the State, not being a citizen of the U.S. being a judge or other state official, being in the state legislature while it is in session, certain disabilities and having a judge determine that you are impaired to serve. Beyond those, you have to either attend or reschedule. There are no automatic disqualifications for doctors, lawyers or other professionals.
I was dismissed by the jury clerk right after she read my questionnaire and saw that I practiced criminal defense in Meriden. The trial that day was a criminal trial. The clerk said that I had fulfilled by service and would be set for three years. I have only been called twice in my life. The first time was six years ago and it was a murder trial in New Haven. I made it to voir dire and was questioned by the State and the defense but was not selected.
How to get out of jury duty is one of the more common questions I receive from people. Although I do know from experience the answers that raise red flags and often lead to dismissal, I tell people to go and answer the Court and questioning attorneys openly and honestly. First you are required to do that in court anyway. Second, jury duty is a civic duty. Any one of us could be a criminal defendant and would want our rights protected in that situation. The right to a trial by a jury of our peers is among the most sacrosanct of the rights of the accused. A trial by a jury of people who could not think of ways to get out of it is not much of a right. For years many states prohibited certain categories of people, most notably women and blacks, from serving on juries.
Courts are usually accommodating of life reasons for not being able to serve on juries. Those include being self-employed, medical issues (e.g. pregnancy, treatment for an illness), work commitments, family obligations, school exams and class attendance and more. That is where being honest comes in. Courts do not want people deciding cases if there is something else on their minds or they are aggravated by jury service to the point at which they will not be able to make a fair decision. Judges often ask at the start of jury selection when all of the prospective jurors are seated together (in Connecticut, this only happens at the beginning; jurors are questioned individually by the attorneys one at a time. This is called “individual voir dire” and differs from every other state in the country wherein jurors are questioned in the presence of other prospective jurors).
I once heard of a judge in another state who, upon realizing that a person was giving answers that were intentionally designed to cause him to be dismissed, struck him for cause but ordered him to watch the rest of jury selection and then attend the trial before he released him from his service obligation. The judge wanted him to experience the process he was trying to avoid.
My experience with most jurors who have served on a trial is that they valued the experience. For some it might have been entertaining. For most it was probably seeing up close and participating in the judicial system.
When you are called for jury service, go in with an open mind. Maybe it will even be for one of my trials and we can talk about this post.