Jury Duty: The right to a jury trial matters to everyone
District Court Judge Molly Owen
| November 9, 2023 12:00 AM
If you have seen the television show, “Jury Duty,” on Amazon Prime that came out last year, you will know that the show follows members of a jury who are tasked to decide a workplace dispute. The lawsuit and trial are fake. Everyone involved in the trial is an actor other than one member of the jury, Ronald, who believes he is serving on a real jury.
The show is funny and heartwarming. It also gives some good insight into the process of conducting a trial in front of a jury.
In the first episode, members of the community show up to the courthouse and go through the jury selection process. The judge asks whether any of the potential jurors cannot serve on the jury, and there are some whose excuses do not pass muster with the judge. For example, one potential juror says that she cannot serve on the jury because “it’s just not [her] thing.”
Eventually, a jury is selected, the trial is conducted, and the jury issues a verdict on the fake lawsuit. Ronald, who became the Jury Foreperson, finally finds out that the trial was fake and everyone but him are actors.
Although “Jury Duty” is a lighthearted television show, it highlights a solemn part of our democracy. Both the United States Constitution and the Montana Constitution provide for the right of citizens to have jury trials. Specifically, the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which is found in the Bill of Rights, states: “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district” where the crime was committed.
The Seventh Amendment also provides that “the right of trial by jury shall be preserved” for civil lawsuits, such as the lawsuit shown in “Jury Duty.” In Montana, our Constitution’s “Declaration of Rights” includes the following: “The right of trial by jury is secured to all and shall remain inviolate.”
Both the United States and Montana Constitutions guarantee citizens the right to an impartial jury made up of members of their same community. To preserve this right, county clerks of court are tasked with assembling a list of community members and informing them of their duty to serve as a juror.
To do so, clerks of court mail community members a questionnaire to determine whether they qualify to serve as a juror and whether they can serve as a juror. If a person does not respond to the questionnaire, the clerk of court sends their name to the local sheriff’s office. Then, Montana law requires that the sheriff personally notify those who did not respond to the questionnaire.
I am one of two District Judges for the Twentieth Judicial District, which covers Lake and Sanders Counties. I write this article in my chambers at the Lake County Courthouse when I should have been in the courtroom conducting a felony criminal jury trial. However, of the 85 people who the Clerk of Court notified, only about 35 returned their questionnaires. This meant that Lake County Sheriff’s deputies had to personally notify about 50 community members who did not return their questionnaires.
Instead of patrolling our streets and protecting our community, sheriff’s deputies had to spend their time finding those who did not respond to the questionnaire. To be frank, it is a waste of their time.
Then, even though 85 people were called to serve, only 26 showed up. We could not go forward with the jury trial because we did not have enough potential jurors. I was forced to continue the trial to a later date.
Moving a trial date may infringe on the criminally accused’s right to a speedy trial. It inconveniences the potential jurors who took time off work, who made alternative arrangements, or who arranged childcare to show up for jury service and then were told that their presence was no longer necessary. It delays the conclusion of the case. It may delay crime victims from receiving justice.
If you have not been accused of a crime or involved in a civil lawsuit, you may not be aware of the importance of juries, but the right to a jury trial is important to everyone. A family member or friend of yours – or you yourself – could be accused of a crime, could be a victim of a crime, or could be involved in a dispute about your livelihood, and you would expect – and deserve – a swift and fair decision.
Responding to questionnaires about jury service and showing up to jury service when called ensures that the important right to a fair and impartial jury is protected. Also, you might find that serving on a jury isn’t so bad – just look at Ronald’s experience from “Jury Duty.”