Jurors Play a Crucial Role in the Operation of Democracy in our Nation

By United States District Judge Marvin E. Aspen, United States District Court.


Although news media and commentators routinely scrutinize citizen alienation from our elected and appointed officers and representatives of the Executive and Legislative branches of Government, relatively little attention is paid to the role of the ordinary citizen in the day-to-day management of the Judicial branch—the service jurors provide to our court systems.  Each year, on every work day of every week, more than 1.5 million American citizens[1] take a solemn oath[2] to perform their vital civic responsibility as jurors, and in so doing, they directly participate in the democratic process of the governance of our Nation.


Few citizens fully appreciate that the functioning of democracy in America is a hands-on, populist undertaking.  In particular, the right to a trial by jury of one’s peers is the hallmark of our judicial system and an essential feature of our democracy as a whole.  In fact, it was one of the rights that our founding fathers believed justified their revolt against England.[3]


In today’s society, although heroes are more often celebrated in the sports or entertainment sections of media news, I would add jurors—whose efforts keep state and federal judicial systems running—to my list of community heroes.  Our system of justice depends on people who are willing to serve on jury duty.  It is self-apparent that without the performance of our citizen juries, the wheels of justice in this nation would spin to a halt.


Yet, the reaction of one receiving a summons to jury duty frequently is not one of joy, and perhaps on occasion, one of resentment.  Jury service often is not a convenient obligation.  It takes time out of one’s daily routine and can necessitate major personal and occupational scheduling adjustments.  Sometimes the cases jurors are asked to consider are not particularly interesting.  On the other hand, the glare of the spotlight in trials of prominent people or sensational cases can focus unwanted public attention on jurors.  Perhaps for these reasons, some jurors go to great lengths to come up with a unique excuse to avoid service.  For example, a New York newspaper article[4] listed some excuses potential jurors used: a surgeon claimed he was too nervous to serve; a United Nations interpreter claimed he didn’t speak English; a man claimed he had to relieve himself every five minutes, even though he drove a cab in New York City 12 hours a day.


Negative publicity of jury verdicts and portrayals of jury duty have the potential to undermine the public’s respect for and recognition of the central role jurors play in our justice system.  If people thought the entire jury system was flawed based on controversial cases such as the trials of Bill Cosby, George Zimmerman, Casey Anthony, or O.J. Simpson, would they perhaps ever want to be jurors themselves?  Of course, these lengthy, media-heavy trials are the exception rather than the rule.  Nevertheless, there is always a concern that these outliers will cause other summoned citizens to seek excuses to bow out instead of lining up for civic duty.


Our judicial system is only as fair and just as the people willing to serve as jurors.  Members are chosen from the community, hear the facts of a case, deliberate among themselves, then cast votes to decide the fates of other members of the community.  A jury makes, in some cases, life and death decisions about criminal guilt and innocence, decisions about liability and how much money will reasonably compensate a wronged party, and decisions about denial of rights and how to redress injustice.  It is democracy in action.


All of us—judges and lawyers—who work in and with our state and federal judiciaries have a responsibility to demonstrate to our communities that the jury system works and works well.  Jury service provides an opportunity to celebrate and educate the public about the important function of our courts.  It has been my experience that an overwhelming majority of jurors leave their service with a better understanding and appreciation of, and greater support for, our system of justice in America.

[1]In its most recent nationwide survey, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) reported that nearly 32 million citizens are summoned for state-court jury service each year, of which approximately 8 million report for duty, and only 1.5 million are selected and impaneled.  Hon. Gregory E. Mize, et al., State of the States Survey of Jury Improvement Efforts 7–8 (NCSC April 2007).  The most recent federal statistics available show more than 192,000 citizens report for federal petit jury duty per year, of which approximately 44,000 are selected and impaneled.  U.S. District Courts—Petit Juror Service on Days Jurors Were Selected for Trial—During the 12-Month Period Ending Sept. 30, 2016, available at http://www.uscourts.gov/statistics/table/j-2/judicial-business/2016/09/30.

[2] For example, jurors trying civil cases take the following oath:  “You and each of you do solemnly swear that you will well and truly try the matters in issue now on trial, and render a true verdict, according to the law and the evidence; So Help You God.”  Benchbook, U.S. Dist. Ct. Judges, § 7.08.  Each potential juror summoned for service likewise “solemnly swear[s]” to “truthfully answer all questions that shall be asked of you, touching your qualifications as a juror, in the case now called for trial; So Help You God.”  Id.

[3] See Albert W. Alschuler & Andrew G. Deiss, A Brief History of Criminal Jury in the United States, 61 U. Chi. L. Rev. 867, 875 (1994); The Civil Jury, 110 Harv. L. Rev. 1408, 1417 (1997).

[4] Bob Liff, Excuses, Excuses Avoiding Jury Duty Getting a Lot Harder, New York Daily News, April 9, 1999.