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What if they gave a Jury Trial, and nobody came?

A federal judge in Illinois gave his own answer to this question the other day when he sentenced a juror for violating 28 U.S.C. § 1866(g), which authorizes fines, community service, and even prison for “[a]ny person summoned for jury service who fails to appear as directed,” and who cannot show “good cause” for his failure to appear.   According to news accounts, the Judge sentenced the Jurror “to cough up $1,000, give a speech to an American Bar Association symposium at Northwestern University on Oct. 4, and write an essay about showing up for jury duty.”

The juror was a sales representative for a medical device supplier.  On his calendar for March 8 was a business trip.  A vital trip; indeed, he had reason to believe that if he did not make the trip, he and his company would lose their biggest customer.   When seated as a juror on a criminal case, he believed that the case would be finished before March 8.   Accordingly, he said nothing about the trip.  When March 8 arrived, however, the trial was still in progress.   Faced with choosing between returning to the courthouse, and taking the business trip, he took the trip.  Before leaving he contacted a court clerk, tried to get excused, and thought that he had been excused, but the Judge found that this was “wishful thinking” – he had, in fact, not been excused.

In weighing the Juror’s excuse in the balance, and finding it wanting, the Judge wrote a lengthy and scholarly opinion emphasizing what ought to be obvious:  the right to trial by jury is a meaningful right only if citizens will show up for jury duty when summoned – all citizens, not just the unemployed and the retired.   The opinion also raised a point that may not be obvious: “an employer may be liable under § 1866(g) under a legal theory that the employer induced an employee’s absence from jury service. . . .”  Anyone tempted to avoid jury duty – and any employer with an employee so tempted – would do well to read the Judge’s opinion, and bear in mind the sentence that he handed down.

Robert ("Bob") M. Frey