Next to serving in the military, performing jury duty is the most important civic responsibility of an American citizen. Our legal system is based on the right to a trial by jury. This is a right that is part of the Bill of Rights and is found in the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. The right to a jury trial is the main difference between our legal system and the system in other countries. Most countries either do not allow a trial by jury, or they limit it to certain kinds of cases. In the United States, a trial by jury, based on ordinary citizens showing up for jury duty and serving on a jury, is a right in virtually every civil and criminal case.
So what happens when you are called for jury duty? First off, you will receive a jury summons. The jury summons will require that you appear for jury duty at the courthouse at a certain time and place. When you arrive at the courthouse there likely will be a jury assembly area. It depends on the size of the county whether jury assembly will be large or small. In Houston, Harris County, Texas, where my firm is based, the jury assembly area is huge and there often may be hundreds of citizens all appearing for jury duty on any given day. You should come in to the jury assembly area, have a seat, and fill out any of the jury duty forms you are provided. Sometimes a judge will come into the jury assembly area and ask questions of all who show up for jury duty. The purpose of this is to ensure that you meet the requirements to perform jury duty. This may include juror qualifications such as ensuring that you reside in the county, have not performed jury duty within a specific time period, and have not been convicted of a felony. Jurors will be qualified by the judge to make sure they meet the requirements for jury duty.
After jury assembly, a judge or courtroom deputy, called a bailiff, may appear and divide you into groups. The juror groups will be assigned and sent to specific courtrooms for jury selection. You will be divided into groups of anywhere between 24 to 60 possible jurors. This group is called the jury venire or jury panel. The bailiff will take you to a courtroom and seat you in a certain order based on your juror number. You may even be given a card with your juror number on it. The purpose of this is for the lawyers, the judge and the court reporter to identify you during jury selection.
After you are situated in the courtroom, the judge and lawyers will come in for the voir dire, or jury selection, part of the trial. The judge will make an introduction about the case and the lawyers, and likely thank you for appearing for jury duty. Next, the lawyers will ask you questions. This process is called voir dire, which is a French word meaning “to speak the truth.” The lawyer for the plaintiff will speak with the jury panel first, then the lawyer for the defendant will speak to the jury duty panel.
The purpose of voir dire, or jury selection, is to determine whether jury panel members have a bias that would make a different trial more suitable. This has nothing to do with racial or religious or age bias. Instead, lawyers are looking to see if potential jurors have life experiences that would make them better suited for a different type of case. For example, someone who was just sued in a car accident case probably shouldn’t serve on a jury involving a car accident. Given their life experience, they might be more “biased” toward the defendant, since the potential juror has just gone through the same type of life experience.
During voir dire, there are things the lawyers should do and other things the lawyer should not do. A lawyer should ask questions about the potential jurors to determine if they are suited for jury duty for the particular case. The lawyers should ask about their life experiences, and generally their beliefs about general issues in a case. For example, lawyers in a personal injury case may ask whether jurors could award money damages for things like pain and suffering. When lawyers are doing their job, they will ask questions designed to learn about the biases, life experience and thought processes of potential jurors.
Lawyers following the rules and doing their job properly should NOT give lengthy speeches about the facts of their case. There is a time to discuss the case facts and details, but voir dire jury selection is not that time. When you appear for jury duty and jury selection, believe it or not you should not hear much about the facts of the case other than a general description about the type of case. The facts of the case come later.
Most of the time, the judge will allow the lawyers about an hour each to conduct voir dire. When it is complete, the lawyers may bring in some of the potential jurors for a private discussion with the judge. This happens when a juror indicates that he would like to speak for privately with the judge and lawyers. After that, the lawyers will exercise their juror strikes so that the panel can be reduced to the actual members of the jury.
There are two types of juror strikes, strikes “for cause” and “peremptory” strikes. A strike “for cause” means the juror has expressed a bias sufficient to disqualify himself or herself from jury duty in the particular case. The judge decides which jurors will be struck “for cause.” In addition, the lawyers are given a certain number of “peremptory” strikes. The lawyers may exercise these strikes for any reason, with one exception. The law prohibits a lawyer from striking a juror because of race. If the other side feels that a lawyer has used a peremptory strike for racial reasons, the lawyer may make a “Batson” challenge. If the judge feels the juror was stricken for racial reasons, he may place the racially excluded juror onto the jury.
Remember that during jury selection it is your responsibility to speak up and let the lawyers and judge know how you feel about the questions that are asked of you and the panel. The quickest way to guarantee that you will serve on the jury will be to keep quiet and not say a word!
Once the lawyers exercise their strikes, the actual jury will be formed. So, from a panel of as many as 60 or more potential jurors, the final jury of twelve jurors, or in some cases six, will be selected to continue their jury duty throughout the trial. This jury will hear the evidence and decide the case.
Appearing for jury duty and serving on a jury is both important and rewarding. When you serve on jury duty, you are helping to resolve disputes and serve justice. On jury duty, you are performing an important role in our government. You should at all times be treated with respect, and the lawyers should be well prepared so as not to waste your time while serving on jury duty. The effect of your service and your decision will be felt by the parties for the rest of their lives, and this is why jurors and juries take the process so seriously. At the end of your service, no matter the result, the lawyers and the judge should thank you for your jury duty service.