For over two centuries, the jury system has played an important role in the American justice system.
Jury service is a cornerstone of our democracy, and everybody needs to take it seriously. Our system of justice simply could not happen without the presence of jurors.
Law Week Colorado, “Grand Junction Judge Orders Appearances for Two Missing Jurors,” Mar. 17, 2014.
While legislatures and court officials have attempted to encourage, and even incentivize, participation on juries, citizens have sought to avoid them at all costs. In Harris County, for instance, Jayme Fraser of the Houston Chronicle reported that as of December 2013, less than a third of residents summoned for jury duty appeared for service, and even more ignored the summons altogether.
But what is the consequence of ignoring a jury summons, anyway? Can someone really be punished for tossing their jury summons in the garbage and pretending that it was lost in the mail?
The answer, quite simply, is yes. According to Mariah Wojdacz at LegalZoom, Massachusetts fined nearly 48,000 people for missing jury duty in 2008, and both Los Angeles and New York counties have been known to fine jury dodgers between $250 and $1,500 each. As Vince Devlin of the Missoulian reported, Judge James Manley of Thompson Falls, Montana, recently ordered four absent jurors to pay fines of $100 each for failing to appear for jury selection. The judge noted, “People should see how hard these clerks of court work to set up jury trials. [When] a whole lot of people don’t show up, it doesn’t work.”
Here in Texas, where the Constitution provides that “the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate” (Tex. Const. art. 1, §15), judges are authorized to punish those who ignore a jury summons with a fine ranging from $100 to $1,000. Tex. Gov’t Code §62.0141. Individuals who wish to avoid this fine must show up, reschedule their service through the court’s website or by mail to the address listed on the jury summons, or qualify for one of the following exemptions from jury service:
(1) be over the age of 70,
(2) have legal custody of a child younger than 12 who would be without adequate supervision if required to serve on the jury
(3) a student in secondary school or an institution of higher education,
(4) an officer or employee of the legislative branch of state government,
(5) the primary caretaker of an invalid,
(6) have served as a juror during the preceding 24-month period in a county with a population over 200,000,
(7) in a county with a population over 250,000, have served as a juror during the preceding 36-month period, if the county’s jury wheel has not been reconstituted since the person served as a juror, or
(8) a member of the U.S. military serving on active duty and deployed to a location away from her home station and outside her county of residence.
Tex. Gov’t Code §62.106.
If a prospective juror does not fit any of these categories, however, she may still be eligible for exemption under Texas Government Code §62.110(a). Under that section, the court may grant an exemption for any “reasonable sworn excuse” that the prospective juror presents to the judge in open court. As Robert Hirschhorn and Alexandra C. Figari reported for the Texas Bar Journal, examples of reasonable excuses to get out of jury duty include previously scheduled doctor’s appointments and travel plans. Examples of unreasonable excuses to get out of jury duty include “the legal system is perverted,” “I cannot sit in judgment of others,” “I dislike lawyers,” and “I have to take my dog to the vet.” Battaglini et al., Jury Patriotism: The Jury System Should Be Improved for Texans Called to Serve, 35 St. Mary’s L.J. 117 (2003-2004).
For more detailed information on jury exemptions and jury selection in general, check out O’Connor’s Texas Rules * Civil Trials.