Written By Christopher B. Dolan
This week’s question comes from Frank T. in the Mission District: I got a jury summons in the mail. Why do I keep getting them? I don’t want to sit on a jury and take time away from work. My husband and I had a real hard time during COVID and taking time off work right now would be difficult.
Frank, I know this is a sentiment shared by many right now. The right to trial by a jury of one’s peers is enshrined in the Bill of Rights that was formed at the time of the birth of our Nation. When The Colonies were under British rule, citizens had no right to have members of their community decide their fate. Justice had become politicized, and it was administered pursuant to British law, and as a manner of repression, as the colonists were considered British subjects. British law was often unjust and unfair to the Colonists and failed to recognize the realities of living in the New World. This was one of the many injustices that spurned the birth of our Democracy. Trial by jury was, and largely remains, an American institution with most countries not offering jury trials to their citizens.
The right to trial by jury was established under and through the Seventh Amendment to the Bill of Rights. As such it was one of the original rights for which a war was fought, blood was spent, and lives were sacrificed. The right to trial by jury is also guaranteed by Section 16, of Article One, of the California Constitution.
What was once considered a fundamental right and honor is now perceived by many as an annoying and disruptive inconvenience. Not to minimize the impact that you feel jury service has upon your personal circumstances, too many of us now take for granted our democratic freedoms, rights and responsibilities. Jury service is an apolitical right and in today’s environment where the courts have become more politicized, the fact that a jury pool is drawn from a broad cross-section of our community is perhaps one of the most apolitical aspects of our Democracy.
As your name, Frank, suggests that your pronoun is male, and you reference your spouse with the pronoun he, I deduce that you are in a same sex marriage. (If my assumption is incorrect, please forgive me.) I want to put this into some perspective: imagine if you or your husband were accused of a crime, were the victim of a hate crime, or been deprived a civil right based upon your sexual orientation. If you lived in another state, not as progressive as California, the judge might be an elected or appointed official who is homophobic, or against gay marriage, and she/he would be the sole decisionmaker on your case. That prejudice could very well affect the outcome of your case and be demoralizing. Likewise, were no members of the LGBTQ community to heed the call to jury service, you would not receive a jury of your peers.
No one knows the case you have been summoned for as of now. Jurors are randomly selected from DMV records, voting rolls and other public sources of information and, until the day you show up at the courthouse, there is no way to know what type of trial, or what type of issue, is involved. In San Francisco, if you are summoned to 400 McAllister Street chances are that it is a civil trial involving disputes between two parties, two businesses, or an individual seeking justice against much more powerful interests such as corporations and/or the government. If you are summoned to 850 Bryant Street, it is most likely a criminal case.
Since COVID-19 began, I have tried two cases to verdict, one in September against a police department and officer where there was a claim of unlawful and excessive use of force resulting in a shooting and one against an insurance company for injuries suffered in a collision. I selected juries, presented the facts, and received verdicts in favor of my clients who otherwise would never have received justice. Had jurors not shown up, my clients would never have had their chance to receive fair and impartial justice. We would never have been able to stand up to the police and, quite possibly, given the judge and venue in another state, we would not even have had a chance, much less won.
The right to trial by jury is already threatened by big monied interests that don’t want trial lawyers like me to balance the power dynamics. Organizations which I am proud to be a member of, such as the American Association of Justice, and the Consumer Attorneys of California, fight diligently and spend millions of dollars annually, contributed by members such as myself who believe in this right, to help elect pro-justice, pro-civil rights and pro-7th Amendment legislators to help preserve the right to trial by jury.
Many jurors, originally reluctant, after serving their jury service are glad they did it. They feel proud of being a group of twelve (or six in Federal Court) who participated. I hope you take the call to service and have a meaningful experience. Lastly, just because you are called for jury duty doesn’t mean you will serve. Many times, jurors are not needed as a case gets resolved or settled. Even if you are called into court, most jurors do not get selected, as often more jurors are called then end up being needed.
I hope this helps you see things in a different light. Without Jurors, the light of democracy dims remarkably.