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One of the duties – or privileges – of civic life in the American democracy – depending on one's viewpoint – is jury duty. Only one in ten U.S. criminal cases ever proceeds to a trial where the verdict is decided by what we call 'a jury of our peers.' Charges are dismissed in the other cases. Or the defendant pleads guilty. Or he or she opts to have a judge hear the case.
But thousands of civil lawsuits do reach a jury, and a pool of qualified adult citizens must be assembled to hear them.
So every day, people get notices ordering them to report for jury duty. Some will be quizzed by attorneys on both sides and chosen as jurors, others rejected and sent home. Still others in the jury pool never reach the interview stage. They spend the day in a waiting room, reading the paper and drinking coffee until they're excused.
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In other words, the odds are slim that anyone will be sitting in a jury box for long, say on a complex or high-profile case. But civic duty or not, that doesn't keep many Americans from striving mightily to avoid jury service. 'I have a medical condition,' they say. 'I bought plane tickets for a trip that week.' 'I have to care for an elderly and infirm parent.'
And more and more frequently in the current economic recession, courts are hearing this: 'I'm hanging on the edge financially.' 'My husband lost his job.' Or, 'My employer won't pay for days I'm not at work.' Or, 'I'm way behind on the mortgage.'
As one Florida judge told the New York Times, a pervasive cloud of financial insecurity hangs over the process, and he's inclined to believe people's stories and let them skip jury service.
The result is that judges must cast their nets ever wider in order to find 12 jurors and a couple of alternates able and willing to serve.
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.