Never been called for jury duty in Minnesota? You’re not alone

REUTERS/Brennan Linsley
According to data from the Minnesota Court Information Office, just 4 percent of adult Minnesotans were summoned for jury duty in 2016.

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.

Fewer summonses

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.

Percent of adult population sent a state jury summons in a year
At around 4 percent, Minnesota’s jury summons rate is among the lowest in the nation. The national average is 15 percent.
Source: National Center for State Courts

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.

Structural causes

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.

Civic virtue?

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.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 03/27/2017 - 10:35 am.

    Jury Duty

    My wife and I have both been living in the same house in St. Paul since 1983. Prior to that, I lived at a couple of other residences in St. Paul since 1972. We are both registered voters, have drivers licenses, etc….

    Neither of us has ever been called for jury duty. Even if only 4% of residents get called each year, how come neither of us has been called in 40+ years?

    • Submitted by David Wintheiser on 03/27/2017 - 11:38 am.

      Could be plenty of reasons

      There are any number of reasons why you might not have gotten a jury summons:

      – List compilation errors

      Your name might have been left off the list of eligible jurors. It might have just been left off of one or more of the lists used to create the ‘master list’, or, if someone with the same name as yours has died in the last year, your name might have been inadvertently removed from the list. If you’re not on the list, you can’t get called as a juror.

      – List transmission errors

      The Judicial Branch puts together the ‘master list’, but each county only needs a list of its own residents — you aren’t considered eligible to serve on a Stearns County jury if you live in Ramsay County, for instance. Again, the winnowing of the ‘master list’ to a number of smaller lists gives an opportunity for data to be lost, and some names might not survive the separation process.

      Note that for these first two points, since the public doesn’t seem to be able to access the jury duty eligibility list, there would be little chance of confirming either of these scenarios. But anyone who’s worked with data can tell you they are certainly possible.

      – Computers aren’t really ‘random’

      This is something that’s been an issue on-and-off in the computing world, but bottom line is that many so-called ‘random number generators’ used by computers aren’t really random, but pseudo-random — they use an algorithm to produce numbers seemingly at random from a ‘seed’, but if the same ‘seed’ is used, the same set of ‘random’ numbers will be generated. If someone occupies the same position on a list year after year, this might explain both why one person never seems to get their number to come up, or alternatively, why another person’s number always seems to come up.

      (If you want a solid primer about computational random number generation, I recommend random.org/randomness as a starting point.)

      – Just dumb luck

      And lastly, people don’t really have a good intuition on how probability and statistics work in the real world. As an example, if 4% of residents of Minnesota are called for jury duty in a year, that means 96% of residents are not called in that year. What percentage of residents would you expect to never be called over a given 40 year period? The math is actually easy — it’s (.96)^40, the probability of not being called in one year to the power of the number of years in the period, since whether or not you are not called in one year is independent of not having been called in a previous year. (Note that if you have served on a jury, that disqualifies you from serving again for four years — but this doesn’t impact the ‘never selected over 40 years’ scenario we are discussing.) Doing that calculation reveals that nearly 20% of all residents (19.5% to be more precise) would never have been selected even once during those 40 years. You two might just be the lucky two-in-ten.

      Hope this helps!


      David Wintheiser

  2. Submitted by Tim Milner on 03/27/2017 - 10:57 am.

    Similar story

    With the exception of an 18 month period, my wife and I have lived in Dakota County our entire lives. We vote in a precinct that regularly falls in the top 10 for voter turnout. We have never been called for jury duty.

    But in that one 18 month period that we lived on the East side of St Paul, I voted once and was selected for jury duty 6 months later. That precinct typically has a very low voter turnout.

    Always wondered about that.

  3. Submitted by Monte Gruhlke on 03/27/2017 - 11:12 am.

    “I got a golden ticket…”

    I’d always complained that for 30+ years I’ve never been summoned while friends who care less keep getting called up — that is until last week when I finally got summoned! I feel like I’ve won a civic lottery. 🙂

  4. Submitted by T Harty on 03/27/2017 - 11:47 am.

    We Could Have a Much Lower Rate

    Served on a jury in the cities. Ended up being an alternate and it was a costly affair given I get paid by the hour. Once the regular jurors went to deliberate we got to talk to the judge. The most irritating part of it was we found out that all the other charges were irrelevant because there was a drug charge with a mandatory sentence. Because of mandatory sentences the DA can’t plead a case out. So then all these drug cases end up going to trial because there’s nothing to lose. So basically we spend a week hearing on a drug case. That puts pressure on the DA, the Public Defenders, and courts that don’t need to be there.

  5. Submitted by Kevin Burke on 03/27/2017 - 12:38 pm.

    Thanks To All That Serve As Jurors

    Service on a jury is an inconvenience. We do not compensate jurors adequately. I have served as a judge for over 32 years. To those of you who have served as jurors in Minnesota: Thanks! You have made the justice system in our state the envy of many other states.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/27/2017 - 12:50 pm.

    Some look forward to it

    …and some view it as an annoyance. I’d be happy to do it again, but it’s not something under my control. I lived in the same town in suburban St. Louis, MO, for decades without being called for jury duty, the was called in twice over a span of just over a year. The first time, it was a criminal trial, and I ended up as jury foreman (even with no prior jury experience) because no one else wanted to do it. I suspect a lot of jurors end up as jury foremen/women for pretty much the same reason. Anyway, that first trial was an interesting and educational experience, in both good and bad ways.

    The second time, potential jurors were interviewed/questioned by both defense and prosecution, and it became pretty obvious that the defense lawyer was looking for a particular kind of juror. I was not that person, and was sent home at the end of the day. Never heard from the court system again.

    Twelve years in Colorado netted me not a single jury summons, and I’m coming up on eight years in Minnesota without a jury summons. Dave WIntheiser’s math may be easy for him, but it’s totally opaque to me, so I’ve no idea if the fact that I’ve not recently been summoned for jury duty means I’m beating the odds or not. I’ve been a registered voter since I became of age to be one, so that’s never been an issue.

  7. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 03/27/2017 - 02:28 pm.

    Finally

    I finally got called. It was a few years after I moved from one county to another. Someone else on jury duty told me a move can trigger your name coming up for jury duty.

  8. Submitted by Jan Arnold on 03/27/2017 - 04:21 pm.

    Multiple Times

    I am in my mid-sixties and I have been summoned for jury duty at least seven times. My husband was never summoned and he wanted to see what it was all about. Had moved and got notices from two different counties within six months of each other. Served on three juries (was interesting). What impressed me the most was how others on the juries took this seriously and tried to make the best decision. I did not observe anyone using the time as a paid vacation from work, or a “joke” but concentrated on the issue and realized the importance of the work.

    If you are summoned show up. The process is interesting and educational. But, be sure to bring a book as a lot of the time is sit around and wait. There is no guarantee you will be called to be on jury, you may spend your time in the jury waiting room.

  9. Submitted by Tim Kaiser on 03/27/2017 - 04:37 pm.

    Called but never served.

    I’ve been called to jury duty 3 times. The first two times
    the defendants took a plea right before we were to be
    seated. The last time I just had to call in every day for a
    week to find I was not needed. My wife has been called
    twice, but never seated.

  10. Submitted by Claire Ackerman on 03/27/2017 - 06:20 pm.

    Lucky you!

    When I moved from my native MN to MD I’d never served on a jury. Since I moved to MD, I’m called almost every year. We have a one day/one trial system. I hate it.

  11. Submitted by Robin Rainford on 03/29/2017 - 10:22 am.

    Useful info, many thanks

    Thank you for this story. I have wondered why I’m not called and talked about it several times with friends. Now that I see that it is statistically unlikely and I can move on to pondering other mysteries.

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