Weaseling out of jury duty? Shame on you

Last November, an Atlanta lawyer who happened to be sitting on the jury in a murder trial asked to be removed because he couldn't remain fair and impartial. The judge dismissed the juror.

Yet, convinced the attorney was simply prioritizing work over jury service, the judge ordered him to remain in the courtroom and watch the trial. We'll never know the true motives of the excused juror, but is this sort of judicial action really necessary to persuade people to perform their jury duty?

Unfortunately, the verdict appears to be a resounding "Yes."

Jury duty is one of the few responsibilities we're assigned as American citizens. Indeed, it is arguably the only responsibility we have that involves a relatively substantial time commitment. Other than jury duty - which could potentially happen every few years - we are expected only to vote and pay taxes. So, really, Uncle Sam takes very little of our time.

Certainly, it is very little when measured against the benefits of having an orderly justice system. Many noncitizens living in our midst wouldn't mind being saddled with the responsibility of jury duty - one of the hallmarks of American citizenship. Yet, the news is replete with discussion of Americans avoiding jury service.

Dustin Hoffman, who starred in "Runaway Jury," admitted that he's been called for jury duty but has never gone because he was always working. Young TV star Ashton Kutcher boasted about answering jury selection questions in a way that would ensure he'd be excused from a car-accident case. Obviously, celebrities aren't to blame for this justice system problem. As with any institutional process, some of the glitches come from within.

I once served as a lawyer for the New York State Unified Court System and was accorded the responsibility of assisting the various Commissioners of Jurors, the state's liaisons between the court system and potential jurors. The questions the would-be jurors had for the commissioners were fascinating and difficult. Can my employer make me charge sick time if I report for jury duty? Can I be paid by the state for jury service if I work a night shift and will not actually miss work for jury duty?

Unlike many abstract legal matters, those issues affected real people every day. But answers and solutions take time, and there were frustrated jurors out there.

In the midst of this jury-related work, I was called for jury duty myself. I was, of course, worried about what I would miss at the office. However, because I knew the attorneys on both sides of the case, I was excused during selection.

The judge who excused me heard me state that I was a lawyer. At the bench, he made a remark about how fortunate I was to get out of jury duty - a wink and a nod to a fellow member of the legal profession. Shame on him. And I, who should have raised a red flag about judges who perpetuate a poor attitude about the jury system, said nothing to him or anyone else about the comment. Shame on me.

The prognosis is not all bad. Most judges strive to impress upon jurors the importance of their duties. While one may disagree with his tactics, the Georgia judge who dismissed the juror but required him to remain in the courtroom has raised awareness of a problem that needs to be addressed.

When you think about it, a day at work is not more important than completion of jury duty. Without our justice system and guarantee of certain rights and liberties, some of our workplaces might not exist. Considered in that light, it may not be so difficult to miss work for jury duty after all.

Kim Paton is a writer and teaches paralegal studies.

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