Jury duty is both a right and a privilege
I suspect that most people’s first response when getting a jury summons in the mail is, how am I going to get out of this? If that is you, read on . . .
You were selected randomly from the voter rolls or a list of licensed drivers. Your employer cannot penalize you for being called to jury duty, and cannot require or request that you use vacation or sick leave for time spent while being called to jury duty.
You do not need to worry about not knowing anything about the law. It is the judge’s job to provide you with the law. Your role is to decide the disputed facts.
Nearly every resident at least 18 years of age can serve on a jury. Certain persons may be excused, such as members of cloistered religious orders, someone whose jury service would cause them or someone in their care extreme physical or financial hardship, or those older than 75 years of age. However, the court must approve your excuse even if you fall within one of these categories.
Most are undoubtedly qualified to serve as a juror, but there may be something that could disqualify them in a particular case. Everyone has predetermined ideas about some matters, but the American jury system is based on the principle that those jurors who decide a particular case will decide it with an open mind. Everyone, including me, has feelings, assumptions, perceptions, fears, and stereotypes—that is, “implicit biases"—of which we may be unaware.
When instructing jurors, I ask that they resist relying on conclusions based on personal likes or dislikes, generalizations, gut feelings, prejudices, sympathies, stereotypes, or biases, and instead carefully evaluate the evidence presented.
When a group of prospective jurors is summoned for a trial here at Cleveland Heights Municipal Court, I recognize they have mixed emotions about being there. I can appreciate that. However, our Constitution contains several protections for defendants in criminal cases, and key among them is the right to a fair trial by a jury.
By serving on a jury, you help preserve this right for your fellow citizens and ensure that our justice system works with integrity, fairness, and transparency. While it is no doubt a sacrifice to be there, it is a sacrifice that our democracy requires.
At our last scheduled jury trial, that is just what I told the jurors. Unfortunately, of the 65 jurors summoned, only 15 appeared. I was certainly disappointed in the turnout. If someone receives a jury summons and ignores it, I can issue a warrant for their arrest and punish them with contempt of court. I have high regard for the citizens of Cleveland Heights, and I hope and believe that the low turnout was an anomaly.
As we approach an election, we should all be reminded of the importance of both voting and jury service—two acts that are our duty and privilege as citizens.
For far too long, individuals were denied those acts, and people fought and continue to fight to ensure everyone has those rights. As you head to the polls, or if you receive a jury summons, remember how important it is. When you get that jury summons, instead of wondering how to get out of it, be honored and excited that you get to play an active role in our justice system.
J.J. Costello, a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident, is judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court.