‘But your Honor, I didn’t know you actually had to show up!”
This was the excuse given by Michael Hanley (*not his real name), a construction worker ordered to the West Mesa Justice Court recently to explain why he failed to appear for jury duty.
On March 21, a group of 18 otherwise typical citizens were surprised to be held in contempt of court for failure to appear for jury duty. They paid fines ranging from $75 to $250. They had failed to respond on two occasions to a mailed summons informing them that their service as a juror at the court was required by law.
“I always throw these letters in the trash” and “I’m just too busy to deal with this,” were among the excuses given by these citizens when asked to explain why they had ignored the jury summons.
In spite of some other more creative excuses, everyone left with their wallets lighter and a greater awareness of the importance of jury duty.
The reason for the hearings, called Order to Show Cause hearings, was the needless cancellation of two scheduled jury trials earlier this year simply because not enough prospective jurors showed up. In our court, a jury trial is set for every Friday. If a trial is cancelled, it is a hardship on the defendant, the attorneys who have prepared for the trial, and the court staff as well.
Jurors failing to appear never used to happen, but apparently, over time many people seem to have forgotten the importance of our system of justice and the wisdom of the founders who instituted the idea of being judged by one’s peers.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
There are some legitimate reasons for someone to be excused from jury duty. These are explained on the jury summons. If you are over 75 years old, unable to understand English, are active military, a police officer, or if serving on a jury would cause extreme physical or financial hardship, you may be excused, but you need to provide the information to the jury commission by submitting the juror affidavit questionnaire.
The jury system only works when citizens participate. One day a jury may be sitting in judgment in a case where you are the defendant. If that were to happen, you would want the jurors to respond to their jury summons prepared to take their role seriously, listen attentively, and render a fair verdict. As judges, we are capable of conducting bench trials with no jury, but the right to request that a jury decide innocence or guilt is a cornerstone of our justice system.
So, when you get that envelope that says jury summons on the outside, don’t throw it away. Read it carefully and do your civic duty. Otherwise you might find yourself on the wrong end of a $250 or even $500 fine.
West Mesa Justice of the Peace Mark Anderson was elected in November 2010. Prior to his election to the bench, Anderson served 14 years in the Arizona State Legislature.