It’s In your court
Judge Steve Halsey
Wright County District Court
The week of April 28 to May 2 was recognized as Jury Appreciation Week in Minnesota. Judges and court administrators are keenly aware of the financial stresses that may accompany jury duty for some citizens. Therefore, we express our thanks to our all jurors of the past year. U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, who served from 1877 to 1911 called the jury system “one of the principal excellencies of our Constitution.”
Jury service is an opportunity for citizens to directly participate in the judicial process. The Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantees jury trials in felony criminal cases, and its Seventh Amendment provides for jury trials in certain civil cases as well.
So, you picked up your mail and found an official-looking letter from your local district court administrator. You open the envelope and discover that you have been summoned for jury duty. What is your initial reaction?
• Excitement: Good for you. You may have been a voter or holder of a drivers’ license or state ID card for years, but have never been called to jury duty until now. You feel that jury duty is your responsibility as an American and Minnesota citizen.
• Dread: “My employer is going to be upset. There is no one else to do my job. It’s my busiest time of year. Who else is going to care for my daycare children? I have too much to do.” These are all understandable first reactions. If someone called to jury duty has a commitment they simply cannot change, such as medical treatment or a scheduled trip, they can request the court administrator to schedule their jury duty at another time.
• Bewilderment: You are pleased to serve on a jury but have questions about what will happen. As a juror you will watch a videotape telling you about the basics of jury duty. This information is also available on the state court website at http://www.mncourts.gov/?page=319 .
Frequently, judges receive written requests to be excused from jury duty by single parents, or teachers, or farmers, or daycare providers, as examples. For many people their service can be deferred to a more convenient time, such as summers for teachers.
Occasionally I receive a request that basically implies the following:
“Dear Judge: Please excuse me from jury duty. I am a professional person and my (customers, patients, students, etc.) rely on me and I cannot possible serve on a jury. I am just too important to devote my time as other American citizens to sitting in a courtroom and deliberating over the fate of a fellow citizen. Signed: Very Important Citizen”
This kind of letter makes me very angry, to be frank. I think of the millions of Americans who have served on battlefields, in the air and on the oceans over the past 200 years to preserve our many freedoms as Americans. I think of those Americans serving us in Afghanistan.
Millions of people throughout the world continue to live under oppressive systems, in China, Myanmar, Iran, and elsewhere. America’s system of government and our rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution are, indeed, a miracle. We have freedom to travel, freedom to speak openly (as I am doing here), and the freedom to disagree with our government — freedoms we must not take for granted.
But with freedoms come responsibilities. This includes jury duty. It is a misdemeanor in Minnesota to fail to appear for jury duty if summoned, unless one is excused by the court. As the song says, “freedom isn’t free.” Serving on a jury is a duty of American citizenship and should be considered an honor, not an inconvenience or distasteful task.
So if you receive a jury summons I sincerely hope you will embrace this opportunity to serve your fellow citizens and fulfill your duty as an American. Remember, it’s in your court.