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From the President to the Impoverished, When It Comes To Reporting for Jury Duty, Who Among Us Truly Deserves A 'Get Out Of Your Summons Free' Card?


Friday, Dec. 16, 2005

You could almost hear the chuckle in State Judge Ralph Strother's voice through his quote in a recent report filed by the Associated Press, entitled "President Bush Among 600 Potential Jurors Summoned to a Texas Court."

In response to a reporter's question regarding the status of George W. Bush's jury summons - issued earlier this month along with others in McLennan County, home to the Bush's 1,600 acre Crawford, TX ranch - the judge quipped, "I don't think I'll be sending the sheriff out to bring the president in."

Oh, really? Well, why not?

As one White House spokesperson, Allen Abney, readily acknowledged, the President was unaware he'd even been summoned for jury duty. It seems then, that chances are good George Bush will never report for his civic obligation. At least not during this presidential term. Maybe not during this lifetime.

The other 599 McLenna County residents who received summonses will not be so lucky.

Shouldn't we all be bothered by that? Set logistics aside for the moment. Sure, shuffling a president into a room overflowing with fellow summonees while his entire Secret Service blocks others' view during the mandatory video, "Jury Duty and You," could get crazy, if not downright dangerous.

But the point is, if the President is entitled to a "get out of your summons free" card, why not the rest of us?

Though I won't, of course, argue that Bush ought to be serving along with the rest of us, I do want to use our intuition that he couldn't possibly serve, to examine what kinds of excuses ought to work, and not work, when the rest of us are called.

The Jury Trial Right - And How It is Enforced

As a practicing lawyer for more than a dozen years, I've had a diverse clientele with an equally diverse and complex repertoire of legal situations for which they seek expert legal advice. And yet the question I get asked most is this one:

"How do I get out of jury duty?"

In criminal matters, the right to a trial by jury is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment; in civil matters, the guarantee comes from the Seventh Amendment. While these rights are fundamental to our system, the thought of actually having to be on a jury makes most of us recoil and slump.

Some states (New York, where I write this, among them) actually permit people to volunteer for jury duty. Yet the bulk of those who serve do so by way of a jury summons, notice, or in very reluctant cases (I'm guessing), courtesy of a lasso.

Those who fail to appear in response to that summons are often subjected to some form of punishment. In Texas, for example, where the President has been called to serve, failure to respond to a jury summons is considered contempt and is punishable by up to a $100 fine.

Compare the Texas statute with that on the books in Massachusetts where Senator (and former presidential candidate) John Kerry was recently summoned -and selected - for jury duty. He not only served, but was chosen as foreperson.

Massachusetts means business. In an effort to achieve a higher juror yield and maintain a diverse jury pool, the Office of the Jury Commissioner there recently implemented the "Delinquent Juror Prosecution Program." Massachusetts, it seems, will actually prosecute those jurors who unlawfully either fail to respond to a jury summons, fail to appear at the courthouse as scheduled, or fail to fully complete juror service.

Here's how Massachusetts enforces its rules: A person who commits any of these infractions, will receive an arraignment summons. If the person then fails to appear in court in response to the arraignment summons, a warrant for his or her arrest is issued. And if the person is convicted, a fine of not more than $2,000, a term of community service, and/or court costs may be imposed by the court.

No wonder Senator Kerry - and the others on his jury -- eagerly fulfilled their civic obligation.

Why Are We So Averse to Serving on a Jury?

Given a choice, most citizens would opt not to participate in jury duty. There are many reasons for this. Some of these, as I will explain, can and should be addressed; others, however, unfortunately can't be.

First, the pay stinks. Most counties allow for a small stipend (averaging anywhere from $15 to $40 per day), parking reimbursement and maybe a bologna sandwich. The law should be changed to provide that jurors at least receive minimum wage from the government - and also, potentially, to force the employer to pay that juror his usual wage, less the government's share, while the juror is absent.

This might be hard on small businesses, but the law could accommodate that, too. Suppose a grocery store has three clerks - who all get summonses. It seems reasonable that in a given year, only one of these ought to serve.

Another solution would be simply to make financial hardship a guaranteed excuse. But it's not a good solution: A jury is supposed to be a cross-section of the community, not a cross-section leaving out those of modest means.

Second, the time obligation is potentially tremendous, especially in cases which could last weeks or months. (Think of the California jurors in the cases against Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson and Robert Blake.) In the case against Scott Peterson, the jury was sequestered during deliberations, which naturally places increased stress on the jurors.

Lengthy service and sequestration are sometimes necessary. But perhaps the law could reward jurors who suffer them with a lengthier period before they receive another summons: Shouldn't the person who served for four months, at considerable hardship, get a longer respite from jury duty, than the one who sat in a room for four hours and went home?

Then again, jury duty can have its perks. Those lucky enough to get on a high profile trial can actually profit (in most cases) from their service, by writing "tell-all" books, selling movie rights and the like. But, like winning the lottery, those instances are not the norm.

Might the President Actually Serve on A Jury - and Soon?

Since requesting a postponement of his civic obligation, spokespeople for the President have stated that the Commander-in-Chief does intend to serve.

According to a report in the Waco Tribune-Herald, White House spokesman Blair Jones said that President Bush will do his civic duty within the next six months. "[W]e have been working with the court and told the judge that we would like to reschedule the president's jury duty. Jury duty is an important civic responsibility and it is important that people do serve."

I'll believe it when I see it.

My best guess is that within the next six months, George W. Bush's name will be forever removed from the jury summons database in Crawford, TX, as it probably should be. Okay, fine. But I say, what's good for the president, is good for the people.

The President is a busy guy. But so was John Kerry, and not only did he report, he served.

I'm busy too; aren't you? As is the single mother, the Wall Street executive, the hospice worker, the teachers, the preachers, and the dogwalkers. Who among us is not busy?

Yet, we are obligated to report. And in some cases, like or not, we must actually serve.

Perhaps this small glimpse into his constituents' reality will give President Bush pause to rethink the jury system as we know it, and lend support to a new and improved system: One that does not inconvenience whole segments of society, cripple small businesses, and send households into financial disarray. One that turns what is often a reluctant "jury of one's peers" into a decently-paid stint of work.

Until then, I have but one answer to the age old question: "How do I get out of jury duty?"

Unless you are the President, it ain't easy.

Jonna M. Spilbor is an attorney and legal analyst on "Kendall's Court", airing Sundays on Fox News Channel's Weekend Live with Brian Wilson. She is also a frequent guest commentator on Court-TV and other television news networks, where she has covered many of the nation's high-profile criminal trials. In the courtroom, she has handled hundreds of cases as a criminal defense attorney, and also served in the San Diego City Attorney's Office, Criminal Division, and the Office of the United States Attorney in the Drug Task Force and Appellate units. In 1998, she earned certification as a Court Appointed Special Advocate with the San Diego Juvenile Court. She is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, where she was a member of the Law Review.

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