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June 2008

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Judges and Jury Duty

Federal judges have full-time jobs handling cases. Why would they want to sit as jurors in yet another courtroom and decide the fate of defendants and litigants in still more cases?

Because it’s their civic duty and they’re happy to serve.

“You try to have a cross-section of the community on a jury,” says Magistrate Judge Aaron Goodstein in the Eastern District of Wisconsin, “and I’m part of that cross-section.” He has been called a number of times for jury duty in both federal and state court. Goodstein admits to a professional interest in knowing what goes on in the jury room. “It’s a unique opportunity to see the dynamics of jury service. My experience has given me a better awareness,” he said. “Jury duty has made me more sympathetic and understanding of the people who serve.”

Judge Eugene E. Siler, Jr., now a senior judge on the Sixth Circuit, served for several years as a district court judge in the Eastern District of Kentucky. He has had the opportunity to report for jury duty on two occasions. “They offered to excuse me,” he recounts, “but I said no. As a trial judge, jury duty made me aware of the problems jurors might have. Sitting around for a while, waiting to be called, I could hear the viewpoints of the other jurors. That’s why when my trials were cancelled, I always told jurors well in advance so I didn’t waste their time.”

The majority of district and bankruptcy judges in the Central District of California have been summoned for jury service in state court. Several have been on call for a week, and some have made it as far as voir dire, although very few have been empanelled. Judge Margaret M. Morrow (C.D. Cal.) was juror # 11 in a gang murder trial.

“The timing was dreadful,” Morrow said. “In the middle of presiding over a criminal trial, I was called to the state court down the street. But we worked it out.” The jurors were asked to work through an alibi defense with emotional testimony from the victim’s mother and uncle. The jury was deadlocked for a substantial period of time.

“It was interesting to me how the hold-outs were treated,” she recounts. “The foreperson was a psychologist who dealt very well with that. She went around the room to give everyone an opportunity to speak. Finally, it was suggested the testimony be read back.” Morrow said the experience taught her the value of read back.

“It was an extremely emotional trial. Re-reading the testimony took the emotion out,” she said. “We listened to the words. It was an incredible assistance in bringing us all to the same conclusion.”

Chief Judge James F. Holderman in the Northern District of Illinois had just sworn in a trial jury when he received his own summons for jury duty.

“The jury had just been picked,” Holderman recounts, “and I had explained to them that jury duty, while a possible inconvenience, is the highest calling. I told them that jurors are finders of fact, the ones who decide the fate of people in cases. Anyone who is called has a duty to report. Then my secretary brought me a note telling me I had to report for jury duty in Illinois state court the next day. The jury members laughed about it.”

He’d been called twice before to serve in Illinois state court, but was excused by the judge presiding over each of the trials. This time Holderman’s panel never made it out of the jury assembly room and he spent the day working on opinions and his own annual state of the court message.

“I was hoping to be drawn, but I wasn’t,” he said with regret. “When I got back to my own trial, I told the jurors they were lucky to be involved in the jury process.”

Holderman, who likes to set a date certain for trials to begin, said his civic duty didn’t interfere with the administration of justice. “The trial resumed when I got back, and was done within the jurors’ reporting time period,” he said.

It was in 2005 that Justice Stephen Breyer reported for jury duty in the District of Massachusetts, prepared to serve, although ultimately he wasn’t selected for a jury. However, Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf in the District of Massachusetts was not only called, he served on a state court civil trial.

“Massachusetts doesn’t exempt judges from service,” said Wolf, “but I also believe deeply that juries should be a cross-section of the community. Am I too busy to serve? I excuse doctors and teachers, but I often decline the excuse that a potential juror is too busy. The fact that you’re too busy doesn’t generally exempt you from service. Besides, jury duty is interesting.”

Wolf served on a civil case in which jurors were asked to decide if the defendant had violated a restraining order. And while the judge and the attorneys in the case knew he was a federal judge, his fellow jurors didn’t. As it turned out, Wolf and the lone woman on the jury were the only ones who felt the case was not proven; and the other jurors freely challenged their understanding of the facts.

“They took their deliberations seriously,” said Wolf. “They were honest in drawing on their own experiences and they took the time necessary to figure it out. They followed the law as instructed.”

The experience heightened his own understanding of the challenge it is to serve as a juror. “It magnified my great respect for the jury process,” he says. “I believe deeply that trial by jury is a fundamental aspect of our democracy.”

Participating as jurors also has underscored for many judges the importance of explaining to their own juries what is going on in the trial—and the importance of not wasting jurors’ time.

“But most of all,” said Judge Morrow with a laugh, “when I get someone during jury selection who wants to be excused from duty because they have a very important job, it’s great to be able to say, ‘Let me tell you about my jury service.’”