Jury duty 101: Don’t ignore that summons!


If you’ve never been called for jury duty or you’ve been notified but ended up not having to go, you might wonder about rules and requirements. Although the rules do vary by state, the basic requirements of jury duty are the same wherever you are.

How do I find out if I’ve been called?

If you are summoned for jury duty, you will get mail from the court stating the dates of your service and where you need to go. Often, there’s a phone number to call the night before to find out if you will be needed each day—and you may end up calling every night for a week. But plan to be available for all of the dates that your summons lists. Whether you are needed depends on how many cases are being tried that week.

You can be summoned for a jury at any level of government: town, county, state, or federal. In addition to a trial jury (where you decide the outcome of a case), you could also be summoned to serve on a grand jury, which hears evidence and determines if someone should be charged with and tried for a crime.

Can I get out of jury duty?

The laws about jury duty have changed over the years. There used to be exceptions for people in specific occupations, but those have been severely limited in recent years. You can be exempt from a federal jury if you are an active member of the armed services, a firefighter or police officer, a public government officer, or a felon. State exemptions vary, but in some states, you can get an exemption for economic hardship (loss of income while on duty), if you are a full-time student, or if you are the full-time caregiver for a young child or disabled adult. You may also be exempt if you already served on a jury (or reported to jury duty but weren’t selected to serve) within a certain number of years—determined by your state.

While it is difficult to be granted an exemption, you can sometimes postpone or reschedule your service if, for example, you have a vacation planned, a big work conference, or are having surgery.

What if I just ignore the summons?

Not a good idea. Failure to respond to a summons can lead to stiff fines or even jail time, depending on how many other people in your area are also skipping out. There are some legitimate reasons for not responding to a summons (a handicap or an illness, say), but in most cases you still have to show up and explain to the judge why you’re not able to serve on the jury. Basically, if there’s any conceivable way for you to get yourself to court, it’s worth it to avoid the possible repercussions.

More on exemptions and the consequences of not responding to a summons can be found here.

Do I get paid?

In most states, if you are a regular full-time employee, your employer is required to allow you to go to jury duty and pay you while you are away. You may also be eligible for a small daily stipend from the court system for each day you are required to come to the courthouse.

How does it work when I get there?

When you first arrive at the courthouse, you will need to go through a metal detector, so leave your pocket knife at home; however, you can bring items like your phone, a book, your lunch, a newspaper, or a laptop.

When you arrive and check in, you will likely be asked to fill out a form with information about yourself; the attorneys will reference this when selecting jurors. You may also receive a pamphlet that explains the jury selection process and jurors’ role. Also, you will likely be shown a video about jury duty to help you understand your role.

Then, be prepared to sit around and wait for hours or even all day. You might spend the entire week just waiting for your name to be called, depending on what’s happening in the courts. Often, after half a day or so of waiting, you will be dismissed, but don’t forget that you are still obligated to show up again in the morning unless otherwise instructed.

What is voir dire?

Voir dire is the selection process for jurors in a trial. You will be called into a room or courtroom with a large group of people. The process varies; each person may (or may not) be asked a question by the attorneys—or, if it’s a large group, the attorneys will direct questions to the group as a whole and individuals can choose whether or not to answer. You may be asked about your occupation, education, moral beliefs (such as your views on the death penalty), and certain situation-specific questions (for example, if you are there for a car accident case you might be asked if you have ever been in a car accident).

If you respond, you must answer the questions honestly and truthfully. Based on these answers and other factors, potential jurors will be excused one by one until the attorneys get down to the number of jurors (plus alternates) needed for the case at hand.

What happens if I am chosen? Will I be sequestered?

If you are selected for the jury, you must sit quietly and listen to the trial, however long it lasts. The members of the jury are usually told not to discuss the case with each other until the trial is completed.

It’s quite rare for a jury to be sequestered. When that happens, they are put up at a hotel and are not permitted to have contact with family or friends or to see or hear any media coverage. A jury is sequestered only in very high-profile cases. However, it’s not uncommon for the judge to tell the jurors that they must not talk to anyone about the case or watch or read any media reports about it during the trial.

How does a jury decide the outcome?

When deliberations begin, the jury is allowed as much time as it needs to come to a decision about the case. The jury is given the exhibits and the judge will issue verbal and possibly written instructions. In most cases, the jury verdict need not be unanimous but merely a majority. If the jury cannot reach a verdict, it is called a hung jury. If that happens, the jury is excused and the case may be retried before a new jury.

Many people consider jury duty to be a burden, but it serves an important purpose in our legal system—and you might even find it interesting to participate in the process.

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