Summary: This more light-hearted article talks about the author’s recent experience with jury duty and how a lawyer’s perspective differs from that of a layperson.
Immediately after I had the opportunity to pick a jury in one of our federal trials in September 2022, I had an entirely new experience: actually having jury duty of my own. This was far from the familiar halls of civil court, but brought me to the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building. I don’t know how I “escaped” being called for so many years, but those two things just happened to coincide less than a week apart.
From a lawyer’s perspective, jury duty—much like the decisions a jury makes—can be a mysterious black box. Especially because each judge runs their courtroom differently, we may not even have a clear idea of what to expect until the last second. Right before jury selection (the start of any jury trial), the lawyers for both sides will get some information about each prospective juror. Depending on the case, it might be as little as name, occupation, and spouse’s occupation, or as much as a multi-page survey.
The jury pool, or “venire,” then files into the courtroom after us lawyers have been rushing to pore over what information we have. It’s 30 or even more people from all walks of life. The potential jurors take their seats and, after remarks or questions from the judge, each side usually has some time to take the lead, ask questions to ferret out bias, and help educate the jury. That part of jury selection or “voir dire” might last as little as 30 minutes per side or as long as several days, again depending on the case. Then comes the laborious process of striking jurors and back-and-forth objections, until we finally arrive at the jury size required for the particular case. Jury selection is not so much about picking a jury as picking who is not on the jury.
There are many aspects of the process of assembling a jury that I never thought much about before I was called for jury duty. I got the summons in the mail well in advance. I had to worry about how long it had been sitting in my mailbox, because it asked me to fill out online forms within ten days and warned of all sorts of fines if I did not. Wait, why do they need to know my religion!?
The day of, I had to get up at the crack of dawn—way before any jury selection could possibly start—just to make it to the courthouse, park, and make it through security. Those guys made me return a dull keychain bottle opener to my car—something the privilege of being a lawyer had apparently let me bring into every courtroom I’d ever been in before that.
Then I experienced trying to find my way through the maze of an unfamiliar government building to the hurry-up-and-wait of a cavernous jury assembly room along with hundreds of others. We had someone talk to us like we were at a school assembly (including castigating us for an unenthusiastic “good morning”) before we all sleepily filed past a clerk to get our courtroom assignments. From there, back into the maelstrom that apparently every state criminal courthouse becomes around 9 AM. All of this chaos really hit home for me how important it is that us lawyers help the jury pool understand what the heck is even going on.
Quite a few other differences stood out. In the case I tried just before this, the jury pool was hidden away far from us lawyers until they appeared in the courtroom. At Frank Crowley, it seemed like we were told to wait right in the main hallway everyone used. In my case, it seemed like we got very little information about each juror, but now I had to fill out a lengthy survey about my opinions. Before, we had 30 in the jury pool; for this one, it was at least 70. I was number 69.
The introductory spiels and questions of the judge and lawyers, at the very least, were very familiar if much longer than I was used to. Us lawyers always want to encourage potential jurors to speak up, since we usually cannot strike people who the case isn’t right for if they never say anything. Lawyers, presumably unlike most people, are usually pretty excited at the prospect of jury duty. I was lucky enough to be assigned a seat in the cushy jury box and not one of the wooden gallery benches, which I’m sure made a difference. I came in actively wanting to participate as much as possible, but actually found it hard to based on the questions asked. However, a fair number of people made it very, very clear they did not want to be on this jury.
After lengthy questions from both sides punctuated by a lunch break, we went back out to wait in the hallway. There we remained for essentially the rest of the day. Courtroom personnel periodically called potential jurors in for additional questions. Lawyers are often worried that jurors aren’t going to be engaged or may even resent having to spend days or weeks in court. I found it heartening to listen in on the number of people who actively chatted with one another about the case, including what was going on in the courtroom and who might or might not get picked. People did not seem resentful about jury duty; by and large they seemed upbeat, respectful, and to understand the importance of their role. Judges always tell jurors not to do independent research, and it seemed that people were respecting that.
Eventually, the entire jury pool was called back into the courtroom and a jury was seated. The jury had no hints at all as to what battles might have gone on over jury selection during the day. Probably shocking no one, I, a civil rights lawyer at the very back of the jury pool, was not picked for the jury. The judge was extremely accommodating when it came to giving people notes for work before dismissing us.
The day ended with everyone finding their way out. There was a lot of concern about rush hour, how much jurors are paid, and how much parking was going to cost, but nonetheless people seemed to still be chatty and upbeat even after 8+ hours of waiting.
In the end, I found the entire experience to have been largely positive, and at the very least enlightening. Any trial lawyer should experience this side of jury selection at least once, and I’m sure actually getting picked for a jury would be even more fascinating. In any case, I encourage anyone who is called for jury to look at it not as a chore, but a learning experience for how our justice system works, and to be as engaged and understanding as my fellow juror pool members were.