Is it Illegal to Intentionally Fail to Appear for Jury Duty?
Over the weekend, a friend told me she had received a summons for jury duty. One of the first questions she asked was, “What do I say? You know, to get out of it?” Set aside for the moment the fact that it is a crime to “intentionally fail” to appear for jury duty (RCW 2.36.170). I have yet to see anyone prosecuted for failing to appear for jury duty, but I’m sure it’s happened out there somewhere.
As someone who would absolutely love to be on a jury, I have to accept that I will realistically never get to. Most lawyers are very reluctant to leave another lawyer on a jury. And while I’ve handled dozens of trials as an attorney, I’ve never gotten to participate from “in the box”. So when I was asked about getting out of it I was a bit dumbfounded. All I could think of was all the reasons you should want to be on a jury!
Why Should You Want to Go to Jury Duty?
By contrast with all the innumerable rights bestowed by the laws of this country, serving on jury duty is one of the very few obligations. There are a lot of things that you SHOULD do as a citizen of this country, but you don’t HAVE to do much of anything to enjoy the benefits of living here. So in other words, in exchange for the rights and protections we enjoy, we only really ask this one thing. Show up for jury duty. In this era of mistrust of law enforcement, of erosion of traditional government boundaries and norms, of the national Black Lives Matter movement - it’s never been more important than right now for us to do our part.
There are plenty of good reasons that you should appear and serve your jury duty even without being threatened with jail.
- Jury duty is interesting! There is a reason that courtroom dramas have been a prime time staple since the formative days of TV. The work being done in courts is something that all Americans should be aware of and see firsthand. Serving on a jury affords a chance to directly observe how justice is being administered in your community. A jury trial is the likely most significant event in a defendant’s life, the cases have tremendous stakes for the people involved on both sides. Important things are happening every day in your local courthouse and as a juror you get not only to observe it directly, but to be an actual participant.
- Veteran jurors can vouch for the opportunity. I bet that if you have a friend or family member who has ever been on jury duty, you’ve heard about it, and likely more than once. Why? Because serving on a jury is a memorable, meaningful experience. The short term inconvenience will certainly be outweighed by the story you’ll have to tell.
- Jury duty really is a rare American obligation. Our founding documents (the Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) all enumerate a number of rights to people in America. In fact, the singular right that appears in all three documents is the right to jury trial. So concerned were the founders with the threat of abuse of governmental power that the right to trial by jury is secured and described multiple times in the Bill of Rights. But that right to trial is meaningless without your participation.
- Your community needs you! It is not a sufficient response to say “plenty of other people will show up, they don’t really need me”. The concept of a fair trial by a “jury of your peers” relies on all parts of our society being represented. The system doesn’t just need warm bodies – it needs perspectives, insights, and opinions. It needs diversity of age, background, economic status. It needs you!
The job of a jury isn’t just to determine what the law is – a judge could do that. The presence of a jury keeps the government honest by always letting those outside the justice system come in and, in some respects, be the boss for a day. A jury answers not only the question ‘is this legal?’, but the larger questions of ‘is this right?’, and ‘is this what we want the law in our community to look like?’ For all the training and knowledge and experience that we inside the system have, there is no better check of power than for a layperson to come in off the street, examine the process and make that final decision.
So sure, we could tell you how to get out of jury duty. But we don’t want to. And we sincerely hope you don’t want us to.