Ah, jury duty. That sacred hallmark of democracy that gets people out of their homes and workplaces, and into a courtroom to decide whether or not someone from their community is guilty as charged.
For some people, it’s a dream come true: the fulfillment of a civic duty, a chance to see the inner-workings of the justice system, a real-life version of court TV. But for others, it’s a burden.
Not for many Minnesotans, apparently. According to data from the Minnesota Court Information Office, just 4 percent of adult Minnesotans were summoned for jury duty in 2016 — well below the national average.
Is that a blemish on our state’s dearly-held civic virtue? Not necessarily — it might, in fact, be an indicator of it.
Nationally, about 15.2 percent of adults are summoned for jury duty in a year, according to a 2007 study by the National Center for State Courts’ Center for Jury Studies (that survey, which covered 17 counties that include 66 percent of the state’s population, found that 3.4 percent of Minnesota adults had been summoned to serve on a jury within a yearlong period). That makes the share of Minnesota adults called for jury duty among the lowest rates in the nation.
The highest are in California, where more than 40 percent of residents over 18 were summoned for jury duty at some point the previous year, the survey found. On the other end of the spectrum, just 1.4 percent of New Jersey adults received summonses.
To understand why Minnesota sends out fewer summonses in proportion to its population than other states, it helps to understand how the jury selection process works. So here goes:
How jury duty works
In order to come up with a jury, state courts first need a list of residents to summon.
In Minnesota, that list comes from a few places: Every year, the state Judicial Branch collects a list of residents who are registered to vote, who have drivers licenses and who have state IDs. When people die, the Department of Health provides information so the Judicial Branch can scrub their name from the list. There are currently about 3.8 million people in Minnesota’s jury source list, according to the state judicial branch.
Not everyone who’s on that list is eligible to be a juror — in fact, only about 45 to 50 percent of people who receive a summons are in a position to serve. That’s because you have to be over 18, a county resident and U.S. citizen, be able to communicate in English, be physically and mentally capable of serving on a jury, have had civil rights restored in the event of a felony conviction and not have served on a state or federal jury in the last four years.
Every year, about 180,000 Minnesotans are chosen to be summoned at random by computers. With few exceptions, the people who receive summons are required to serve. Failure to show up is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine or jail time.
Of course, being summoned doesn’t necessarily mean serving on a jury: Last year, of the 90,000 Minnesotans who were summoned and qualified for jury service (determined by a questionnaire), about 45,000 were asked to report to their county courthouses for service. From there, the jury selection process further winnows down the number who serve.
Felony cases in Minnesota have 12-member juries (43 percent of jury trials, according to the 2007 NCSC report), while other cases have at least six-member juries.
In conducting its survey, the NCSC sent forms to every county in the U.S., but received more responses from urban counties, Hannaford-Agor said. Still, she said, results represent counties where a majority of residents live.
There are several factors that can affect how many summonses courts send out in order to impanel a jury: trial rates, trial length, and exemptions from serving among them.
In Minnesota, a couple factors seem to stick out.
Because of the way the system is set up, Minnesota likely doesn’t need to summon as many jurors as other states, said Herbert Kritzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.
“In Minnesota the way it works is you get called for a week, you go in on Monday, you’ll sit around, maybe you’re put on a jury (that) first day, if you’re not put on a jury on Monday, you come back Tuesday … at some point, they may say you don’t have to come back, but you’re on for a week,” Kritzer said (or two weeks, or a month, depending on the terms). Counties also use phone systems so potential jurors can find out remotely if they need to report for duty.
In Ramsey County, a summoned juror is on call for a week, or until they get onto a trial or are dismissed. In Hennepin County, it’s two weeks. In Faribault County, four months.
But in other states, it’s common to use a one day/one trial system of selecting jurors. That means if you’re summoned, you appear for one day, are placed on a jury or not, and then you’re done.
Two-thirds of the U.S. population lives in areas where jury selection works in this manner, said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the NCSC’s Center for Jury Studies. The Minnesota Judicial Branch Court Information Office isn’t aware of any courts in the state that use one day/one trial on a regular basis, spokesman Beau Berentson said in an email.
This may be partly why California’s rate of summonses-sending is so high. The state doesn’t have particularly high trial rates for the size of its population — 47.5 trials for every 100,000 people compared to the 52.8 national average (59.5 in Minnesota), according to the NCSC study, but its state courts rely entirely on one day/one trial.
So does Colorado, where 20 percent of adults over 18 received jury summonses in a yearlong period. In Kansas, where 80 percent of surveyed courts used one day/one trial, 21 percent of adults were summoned, according to the survey. States that have lower rates of summonses tend to more courts with longer terms of service, according to the NCSC study.
One day/one trial isn’t the only reason the share of Californians summoned as jurors is likely so high.
California also has really high no-show rate for would-be jurors: according to a study by state judicial officials, rates of California residents ignoring jury summonses in the state’s most populous counties was as high as 45 percent in 2014, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The 2007 NCSC study found the statewide average non-response rate to be 19 percent.
The national average, a 2009 NCSC study found, is 9 percent, but can be as high as 50 percent in some courts.
What percent of Minnesotans who receive jury summonses don’t respond?
Less than 5 percent don’t respond to their first summons, according to the Minnesota Court Information Office. That could be because the state’s potential jury list has accurate addresses, or it could be because of a certain Minnesota point of pride — civic virtue, or both. After all, Minnesota has an easier time turning citizens out to vote than most states, with the highest voter turnout in every presidential elections since at least 1952.
A more efficient system
Serving on a jury is good for democracy, research shows: it helps citizens better understand the judicial process and has been found to increase voter turnout.
“One of the things we know from courts is that jury service is a great education opportunity for people to learn about the justice system,” Hannaford-Agor said.
For a state with such pride in its supposed civic virtue, is it a problem that so few Minnesotans are summoned for jury duty?
Not really, Hannaford-Agor said. What matters is that people who are called show up, which shows confidence in the judicial branch.
And besides, the rate of adults actually impaneled on a jury is the same in Minnesota as the national average — 0.7 percent, according to the 2007 NCSC study. That suggests that in Minnesota, you’re about as likely to actually serve on a jury as adults elsewhere, just less likely to be summoned in the first place.