Opinion: A sacred duty of citizenship

The official-looking notice arrived in the mail, on the day before Father’s Day.


My breathing quickened. I thought of vacation and other plans I had for the summer, including plenty at work.

I set the envelope aside for a couple of days. After all, I thought, I probably won’t have to serve on a jury. They send out lots of these notices. My wife and son had recently gotten them too, but hadn’t been asked to show up.

I finally read through the notice a couple of times – it’s confusing and intimidating – and went online to fill out the questionnaire.

And then I got curious about how this all works. So I called a couple of people who could explain: Judge Robert McBurney of the Fulton County Superior Court and District Court Administrator Yolanda L. Lewis.

McBurney explained that “like a big basket of ping pong balls,” my name had been picked from a database of about 800,000 names that Fulton County has available for possible jurors.

That list is compiled by the Council of Superior Court Clerks of Georgia, which does that work for counties in Georgia.

The names come from lists of voters and people with a driver’s license or a state identification card. (So the old myth that because you vote you become more likely to serve on a jury is actually untrue. You’d have to avoid voting, driving legally and any form of a state identification card.)

According to Lewis, about 80 percent of us respond when we get a jury summons in Fulton County.

The legal system likes you to fill out its online form, instead of mailing in the paper version that comes with the summons. That expedites things, in case you reach the jury selection process, when judges and lawyers want to know all about you.

But, as McBurney and Lewis explained, I’m a long way from that happening. So back to their 800,000 names.

Lewis keeps statistics on how jury service plays out.

About 184,000 Fulton County residents will get a jury summons (It changes some each year.). Of that number, about 37,000 will “attend” jury service. That means most of us don’t actually have to show up at the Justice Center Tower at 185 Central Ave.

That seems, to say the least, a bit inefficient. After all if you turned that into a batting average, it would be about .200, which would get you a round of boos when you came to bat for the Braves.

That’s why, McBurney said, the county has a call-in system so potential jurors don’t have to make the trek downtown if they’re not needed. (I have to call Sunday night.)

Lewis explained further. Judges in Fulton County, all 31 of them, and their staffs are planning for potential trials months in advance. And under the law, jurors must get notice at least 25 days in advance, Lewis said. The court has little choice but to make sure it has enough potential jurors, and has to notify them before final plans for trials are made.

So back to the 37,000. Of that group, about 15,000 or so actually go to a courtroom. And 4,000 of them will actually be seated and be part of a trial.

Again, that’s about 11 percent of 37,000 who come downtown. Why so few?

McBurney warned me that there’s a chance I could have to go downtown, and still be sent home after waiting all day.

The presence of potential jurors pushes both sides to avoid the time and expense of going to trial when a settlement or plea agreement is the better route — and sometimes that decision comes at the last minute when reality sets in, McBurney said. Without the possibility of a jury trial, the incentive to settle would be much less enticing — and the legal system would be slower and more costly.

But if a trial goes forward, in the process of picking jurors, many can be disqualified by judges and lawyers. Each side of the case has latitude in the selection process as they push for jurors who they believe will see the case their way.

If I end up on a jury, I can expect to serve for about five days, which is the average length of a trial, Lewis said.

“We’ve tried to make the experience for jurors better,” McBurney said.

There are parking lots and a shuttle to the Justice Center Tower. There’s a help desk in the lobby of the building to help direct me.

I pressed him on some other things.

The jury summons I got in the mail is confusing and intimidating, I said. Why not make it friendlier?

He said the court is looking at how to improve it. But being a juror is serious business, and a friendly looking postcard could be discarded with the rest of my junk mail, he said.

What if I was out of town, or planning an expensive vacation when I was called? What would I have done then?

Lewis noted that jurors have the option to defer their service — once. They are given a 12-week window within which they can choose.

McBurney impressed on me the high ground of jury service — and challenged me to see things from that perspective.

He appealed to my sense of citizenship and to my responsibility as a member of American society.

He reminded me that in a country where we pride ourselves on the rule of law, and hold sacred the ideals of the founders, our justice system must depend on engaged citizens.

“The way we in America have decided to resolve legal disputes is to call on members of our community,” he said. “The jury system is by no means perfect, but I’m quite convinced it’s the best.”

So when I get back from a family vacation, I’ll make that important call to find out whether I’ll have that chance to perform that sacred duty of citizenship.

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