Jury duty is for Everyman - and some presidents
HOUSTON — Some states allow doctors, firefighters, and teachers to get out of jury duty because their jobs are too critical to go vacant for any length of time, but what if you're the leader of the free world?
Turns out, there is no exemption for that occupation - and President Bush says that's OK by him.
Summoned In December in McLennan County, Texas, where his ranch is located, Juror No. 286 couldn't make it because he was, well, too busy.
But because he believes it's an important civic responsibility, Mr. Bush has rescheduled his service. The local judge has offered him a little latitude, what with all that work back East, so the president can choose from several dates in the next six months. The first is Jan. 30.
"He could just show up, but I hope he lets us know with enough time to meet all the security issues," says Karen Matkin, district clerk of McLennan County. "We've never had to deal with anything like this before."
In fact, no modern court has had a sitting president on a jury. Ronald Reagan came the closest when he was summoned in the 1980s by Santa Barbara County, Calif. He was granted a deferment until he was out of office.
Former President Bill Clinton was willing to serve on a case involving a gang-related shooting when he was called in 2003, but the judge dismissed him. Then the defendant, convicted and sentenced to 18 years, appealed, claiming he was deprived of his rights because Mr. Clinton was excused.
This past November, Sen. John Kerry, Bush's rival in the last election, served as the jury foreman on a two-day personal- injury trial in Massachusetts. Senator Kerry said he enjoyed himself but was surprised he was not stricken from the case, having been a Middlesex County prosecutor in the 1970s.
Former federal prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani served as jury foreman on a $7 million personal-injury case while he was mayor of New York in 1999.
In fact, after New York passed a jury-reform law in 1995 that eliminated exemptions for lawyers and other professionals, Gov. George Pataki, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee were called, though none served.
Occasionally, movie and television stars get seated, like Oprah Winfrey did last summer in Charlotte, N.C. - although most lawyers say they avoid powerful personalities that might distract other jurors.
The fact is, most high-profile public servants simply ask to be excused, as was the case last year when US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was called for jury duty in Marlborough, Mass. The few who don't are often removed by lawyers who either don't want the publicity or know too much about a public figure's opinions.
"Even if [Bush] did show up, almost certainly he - like senators and other high-profile people - would be struck during voir dire," says Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys tend to steer clear of highly educated, powerful, or strong-willed people, says Professor Jillson. They are looking for more of an Everyman who is impressionable and subject to argument.
"From all we know about Bush, once he gets an opinion about something, it's there for good. There's no changing it," he says.
Ironically, this is not the president's first brush with jury service as a public figure. In 1996, while governor of Texas, Bush was summoned to the Travis County Courthouse in Austin and arrived all smiles, "just an average guy showing up for jury duty," he said at the time.
He was excused from the drunk-driving case when his then-general counsel, Alberto Gonzales, argued that the governor's power to pardon posed a conflict - a notion that the judge in the case later characterized, in an interview with Newsweek, as surprising because such a pardon petition would be "extremely unlikely."
Most presidents don't get called for jury duty because they list the White House as their official residence. Not so with Bush, who spends as much time as he can at 43 Prairie Chapel Ranch Road in Crawford.
Because the county is so small, with a jury pool of about 150,000 people, his name was sure to come up sooner or later. One of his daughters, Barbara, was called in November to the same court and also needed a postponement. Some 70 percent of county residents simply don't respond to the summons, says Ms. Matkin - a little more than the national average.
Bush was almost a no-show. After journalists reported that he was due in court, the judge said the summons was probably lost in the massive amounts of mail Bush gets each day at the ranch. But the president says he is ready and willing to serve.
"He is a juror and we will run him through the process just like we do everyone else," says Matkin. "But it would not surprise me at all if the lawyers agree to excuse him. I assume he's got very important things to do."