Trial by jury is one of the most important aspects of the legal system in the United States. In the United States, any person who is accused of a felony is guaranteed the right, according to the United States Constitution, to have a trial before a jury. In addition, civil trials can often be before a jury, as allowed by the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. With the large number of jury trials going on at any one time in every state, calling citizens to fulfill their civil duty as jurors is an important part of the judicial system.
Although it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, a citizen in the United States typically receives a jury summons via mail. The jury summons will indicate which court is demanding the citizen’s presence and on what date she is required to appear. There are always certain exceptions; however, failure to respond to a jury summons without meeting one of the exceptions can result in jail-time, a fine, a warrant for arrest, or other penalties. The exceptions, which vary widely, may include residing less than 50% of the time in the county where the court is located, the inability to understand English, old age, younger than the age of 18, caring for and residing with a permanently disabled person, and a mental health or other health-related concern. In most cases, a doctor’s note must accompany any health-related excuse and pregnancy or work-related concerns are rarely considered excuses in the eyes of the court.
Once the jury summons is received, the citizen must appear on court at their request date and time. At that time, they will be assigned a trial. As part of the trial process, called voir dire, the attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant can ask potential jurors questions as a group and on an individual basis. Based on each potential juror’s response, the attorneys can decide whether they would like to have the potential juror serve as an actual juror on the trial or whether they would like to dismiss the potential juror for cause or as one of their preemptory strikes – where no reason or cause needs to be stated. Dismissed jurors return home and their day at court is finished; selected jurors continue on through the trial process.
In some states and counties, a citizen who receives a jury summons can postpone the date that they must appear at court. In some jurisdictions, the date is pushed back by a few weeks and in other jurisdictions the date can be postponed by a year. Postponing a jury summons date is perfect for those citizens with newborn children, a planned vacation, or other valid conflicts.
The United States is not the only country that has trials by jury; however, it does account for the majority of jury trials. In some other countries, such as India and Germany, the use of the jury has been abolished. In Australia and the United Kingdom, the jurors are used and are summoned by a postal jury summons; but, they are accepted without allowing the attorneys to participate in the question and answer period or voir dire. In a few countries, such as Belgium, Canada, and Russia, juries are summoned, but they are reserved for the most violent crimes, crimes where the penalty is at least five years in prison, or crimes where the penalty is death. Each country has its own legal system, many have endured severe changes through the centuries, and nearly all are attempting to find the system that works best for their citizens.