The American Jury: "We the people" in Action! Being a juror is one of the most basic responsibilities of American citizenship. For one day -- or however long a jury trial might last -- citizens from every walk of life come together to act on behalf of their community to decide issues of guilt and innocence or to determine whether someone is owed money for some wrong that is alleged to have been committed.
What a wonderfully democratic idea this is. The United States, in fact, is one of only a handful of countries in the world in which this responsibility is placed on its citizens rather than on professionally trained government officials. "We the people" comes alive in courtrooms and jury rooms all over Kansas and all over the nation every day.
Because of the importance of jury service, the American Bar Assn., the nation's leading legal professional organization, has declared May 2-6, 2005, as Juror Appreciation Week. Many, including the Kansas Federal Court and the governor of Kansas, have joined in this effort to recognize jury service.
It is a time to honor those who serve and to consider how jury service can be improved. It is also a time to thank families and employers for understanding that the inconvenience associated with jury service is a relatively small price to pay for the constitutional guarantees all of us enjoy.
To some, however, jury service is seen as a burden to be avoided, perhaps because it is an aspect of civic life about which most people generally have little information. The entire process can seem mysterious. It raises question from "Why was I selected to be called in?" to "How am I supposed to remember and understand everything?"
In the federal courts in Kansas potential jurors are selected at random from lists of registered voters in the counties which are nearest to the three places where federal court is held: Kansas City, Topeka and Wichita. A panel of potential jurors is on call for a two-month period, though rarely are individuals called in more than one or two times. Between 20 and 40 potential jurors are brought in for the final selection process, depending on the nature of the case. In all but a few rare circumstances, that process takes less than a day to complete.
Contrary to what some may expect, courts and lawyers attempt to treat prospective jurors with utmost courtesy. More and more, the trend is to minimize inconvenience to jurors and to make the process as informative as possible. Note taking by jurors is routinely permitted, modern technology is in place to make examination of evidence easier, and written copies of legal instructions are frequently provided by judges to the jurors. Unproductive "dead time" for jurors is avoided to the greatest extent possible.
As a number of judges have remarked, "Every day is juror appreciation day in our court." Jurors deserve no less. They play a fundamental role in ensuring that "government by the people" is more than just a catch phrase, and Juror Appreciation Week is a good reminder to all of us that we owe a debt of gratitude to those who serve and to their families and employers. It is also a good time for all of us -- as prospective jurors -- to be reminded of the importance of the right and of the duty of jury service.
John W Lungstrum, a Lawrence resident, is chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Kansas.