You head for the postbox to enjoy your “mail moment”. You find the electric bill, some sales fliers, and what’s that funny looking piece of at the bottom? Oh! Oh! It’s a jury summons. How do you feel about that? Are you excited about fulfilling your civic duty, watching the judicial system in action and wielding large amounts of power? Or are you like most people who see this as waste of your precious time? If you are part of the latter group, keep on reading.
I’ve been summoned to jury duty several times, but I’ve never had to sit in a jury box at a civil or criminal trial. Here’s how I did it.
In 1979 my first ever jury summons found its way into the mailbox at my home of record in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I was then stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia. My mother forwarded the summons to me at my military address. All I had to do was scribble a simple sentence on the summons form: “I’m on active duty with the U.S. Army.” Then I mailed it back to Cook County, Illinois, and I did not hear another word from them for twenty years.
Every year the Office of Jury Administration receives a list of Cook County residents from the Illinois Secretary of State (the guys in charge of issuing driver’s licenses), the Cook County Board of Elections and the Chicago Board of Elections. These lists are then combined into one master list and names are randomly selected to receive jury summonses.
I stayed off their radar for such a long time because I never renewed my voter registration after 1976. Also I let my Illinois driver’s license expire while I was stationed in Europe and didn’t renew it until I came home in 1992.
Even then I was not summoned again until 1999. I probably blew my cover by registering to vote after I could no longer abide the way Bill Clinton was doing things.
This time I avoided jury duty by claiming financial hardship and extreme inconvenience. My wife had passed away a few months before, and I wrote a letter to the Cook County Office of Jury Administration telling them that I was still adjusting to my new circumstances as a single parent. I was excused.
Just as an aside, my wife had been summoned the year before. She reported to some kind soul in the office of jury administration and explained that she was terminally ill. Although the bureaucracy is an impersonal entity, the people who run the system are human and will make allowances for extreme situations. She got out of jury duty.
I was summoned again in 2003. This time I had no excuse for not reporting to the designated court at the designated time. However, I got lucky and had only to sit in the jury assembly room for a day. They never called my panel to a courtroom. We got off jury duty at 4pm after catching up on our reading and crocheting.
I should probably take time here to explain how the jury selection process works in Cook County, Illinois. Once a juror appears for jury duty, the juror is assigned to a panel. A panel is a group of people – kind of like a rifle platoon or a football team. The panel I belonged to had 18 randomly assigned folks. Other panels are smaller with only six people. There are a lot of panels waiting to go into action in the assembly room.
When a trial is ready to begin, the judge sends the deputy sheriff to the jury room to request potential jurors. Each judge generally requests a group of 6, 12, 18 or 36 jurors, which basically boils down to them calling one or two panels into play. The required number of jurors (grouped by panel) is sent to the courtroom, and then the fun (known to the legal beagles as voir dire) begins.
During voir dire, the judge and possibly the attorneys will ask the jurors questions to see if they can keep an open mind and be fair. After they have been questioned, the jurors will either be selected or excused for that particular case. If you are selected, you and the other selected jurors will receive instructions from the judge as to what is expected of you, and you will be required to serve for the duration of the trial.
If you are not selected, you will return to the assembly room and could be sent to another courtroom with another panel. If you are not selected by the end of the day, you will be released from the jury room and your service will be completed for at least one year.
I got off pretty easy in 2003, but when they called me again two years later I made it all the way to a courtroom. A medical negligence case was to be tried here, and either the judge or one of the attorneys mentioned the trial could drag on for months. My gut clenched as visions of lost money and work flashed through my mind upon hearing that comment. I had to get out of there.
Fortunately, I was able to describe a bad experience with medical professionals when the defendant’s attorney challenged me. I got off jury duty this time because there was a question as to how fair I would be when considering the evidence.
So here is the quick list of how you can get out of jury duty without even going near the courthouse:
- You can become an active duty member of the military.
- You can fly under the radar by not registering to vote or applying for a driver’s license.
- You can develop a medical condition whereby jury service presents a hazard to your health or a serious inconvenience.
- You can prove extreme financial hardship.
Even if you cannot avoid reporting for duty, you can avoid sitting through a trial by sheer luck of the draw or by making the officers of the court suspect that you might be close-minded, unfair or just a pain in the butt.
Here are some suggestions to aid you with the latter:
- Dress down at the pretrial interview. Most lawyers don’t want a slob in the juror box.
- Ask a million questions, particularly stupid, annoying questions.
- Tell the judge you can spot a liar from a mile away and you are eager to perform your civic duty and bring some dirt bag to justice.
- Break out the conspiracy theories. Tell them know that water fluoridation was designed by the military-industrial complex to protect the U.S. atomic weapons program from litigation.
- Pretend to be hard of hearing. Blank stares work especially well.