Jury Duty: The Heart of American Government



I recently had jury duty in DeKalb County, Georgia, where I have been a resident for 15 years. In 15 years, I have received a summons for jury duty two times.  I have never served on an actual trial jury.  This is the ironic curse of being a trial lawyer.  Most likely, I will never serve on a trial jury although my job involves persuading trial juries to see a case my client’s way.  I have been in many, many courts throughout the State of Georgia and I am proud to say as a DeKalb County resident there is no better court experience than DeKalb County, from the deputies who check you through the metal detector, to the jury clerks who handle hundreds of jurors every day, to the courtroom staff of the trial judges, to the judges themselves.  It is an extremely pleasant experience and trust me, I have been in many Georgia courthouses where that simply cannot be said.

I believe jury duty is the Heart of American Government.  A trial jury is the smallest form of self-government ever conceived.  Government by the People for the People, right?  Trial by jury was so important to our nation’s Forefathers they enshrined it in the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Said President John Adams about trial by jury: “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”  So with that attitude, I proudly stepped into the DeKalb County Courthouse, with jury summons in hand, not in my usual role as trial lawyer, but in the very important role as potential juror. Awesome!  I can’t wait!

I went through the process of jury selection, called Voir Dire in law school and never called that again by me.  It sounds too pretentious, doesn’t it?  And jury “selection” is a misnomer…it is actually jury “deselection.”  Trial Lawyers don’t get to look at the jury venire (another pretentious word for the jurors from whom the trial jury will be struck) and pick who looks best to them. It is the opposite of that. Trial lawyers get (usually) six peremptory strikes to take off the jurors who seem like they would be horrible jurors for their side of the case, for one reason or another.  Each side of the trial strikes six jurors and whoever is left is your trial jury who will decide the case. Again, ironically, the jurors who end up deciding the case are usually the jurors you know the least about. They have often never even responded to any of your questions in “jury selection” so there were no red flags in their personal history to make you concerned about how they would see your case given their preconceived notions or their obvious leanings toward one side or the other. There are also strikes the Court (i.e., the trial judge) exercises called “strikes for cause” where it has been demonstrated that a juror could not possibly be impartial because of something that has happened in their lives perhaps so similar to the case to be tried that they have already made up their minds how the case should come out. Or maybe they have such deep religious beliefs that they are forbidden by their particular Faith to judge another human being and so would be incompetent to sit in judgment of another person.   I was thinking about jury selection this morning as I was reading about the trial that begins to today in the Boston Marathon bombing.  Jury selection in that Federal trial is estimated to take months and the jury venire from which a trial jury of twelve will be struck will  consist of 1,200 jurors!  Where in the courtroom do they put 1,200 jurors?

I give you a little background on jury selection (or deselection) to put my own recent experience in perspective. The case that was to be heard that day was a DUI case, a criminal case that was a misdemeanor trial, which told me no one had been injured in the DUI incident. I don’t handle any criminal cases, so I thought I might actually be left on this jury. Fantastic!  It was probably a one day trial, being tried in front of perhaps one of the most efficient (read fast)  trial judges in DeKalb and so maybe, if I get lucky, I’ll get to learn what goes on in the sanctity of a jury deliberation room and it will cost only one day.  This trial judge has also been a friend of mine for twenty years or so, so I knew it would be a good experience being in his courtroom  Perfect! 

Not so fast.

Of course, the fact that I am a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer came out (strike against me by both sides…no one can trust a lawyer on a jury). The fact that I know a little bit about breathalyzers and how they must be calibrated to be considered reliable came out (strike against me for the prosecution…breathalyzers are notoriously unreliable).  The fact that I often represent victims of DUI drivers in personal injury lawsuits came out (strike against me for the defense).  The fact that I personally had had a bad experience with a City of Atlanta police officer came out (strike against me for the prosecution).  But, as I tend to be optimistic by nature, I still thought those two last strikes would cancel each other out and I would be, by default, left on the jury. Voila! (Another pretentious French word used solely for literary flare here).

Finally, the selection (deselection, remember) was over and the court clerk instructed us:  “If your name is called please remain seated in the jury box.”  So exciting!  Was I the only person in the room who wanted to remain in the jury box?  Clearly so,  as names were announced there was a smattering of muttering that may have included expletives and other generally disparaging remarks about jury duty. Sadly, my name was not announced.  What?!  There must be some mistake. I would be the perfect juror for a DUI case.  Would it be too obvious if I asked the court clerk to check her list again for Robin Frazer Clark?  Did she accidentally skip over it?  Nope. No mistake. I was free to leave the courthouse and go home. Bummer.

It was clear as I gathered with the other juror outcasts waiting for the elevator that these folks all felt relieved not to be in the courtroom still and to be going home. You may often hear the lengths folks will go to to avoid jury duty. It is a common occurrence, unfortunately, in America.  It is an American Jury, however, who breathes life into our Constitution.  It is an American Jury that keeps us from “being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle” as President Adams put it. It is an American Jury that makes our form of self-government the envy of all the World.  Maybe one day I will get to be part of one.

Robin Frazer Clark pursues justice for those who have personal injury claims as a result of being injured in motor vehicle wrecks, trucking wrecks, defective products, defective maintenance of roads, premises safety, medical malpractice and other incidents caused by the negligence of others. Ms. Clark is the 50th President of the State Bar of Georgia and a Past President of Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and has practiced law in Georgia for 26 years. Mrs. Clark is listed as one of the Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers in Georgia and is a Georgia Super Lawyer. Robin Frazer Clark~Dedicated to the Constitution’s Promise of Justice for All.

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