by Sarah E. Hennesy
District Court Judge
Jury duty can be a nerve-wracking experience. Before I took the bench, I was called to serve as a juror multiple times, and even though I was very familiar with the process and what would be expected of me, I was a little nervous each time.
This is what you can expect as a juror when you first enter the courtroom. The judge reads a few introductory remarks and tells you a bit about the case. The panel then stands together and takes an oath: Do you swear you will truthfully answer all questions about your qualifications to serve as a juror, so help you God? Next, the clerk calls the names of those who are to be seated in the jury box with the initial panel. The judge and the lawyers then begin their questioning to select a jury.
It was the process of jury selection I found intimidating as a juror, and I think that is true for many people who are called for jury duty. We don’t take this oath in our day-to-day lives. Neither are we generally expected to reveal personal information in a room full of people. The oath sets a tone of solemnity in the courtroom, and it holds us accountable for what we are about to say. In jury selection, we don’t make ordinary small talk about yesterday’s Vikings game or what happened on Dancing with the Stars. Potential jurors are asked probing questions about their lives. I found this process daunting as a juror. What would be asked of me? What would I have to reveal about myself? What if I had to say something embarrassing? What if I forgot to mention something important? It helps to know a bit about what to expect and to know why our justice system allows such vigorous analysis of our jurors.
In my courtroom, I begin by asking jurors general questions. Most are fairly innocuous and easy to answer, such as “Do you know the parties or their lawyers? Have you heard of the case? Have you served on a jury before?” Some questions get personal: “Have you been the victim of a crime? Have you or a close relative been convicted of a crime?” When I am done asking questions, the lawyers take their turns. They might ask if a juror has a problem with police officers or whether a juror is biased against someone because of his or her race. Jurors may then be excused from the panel based on their answers to certain questions.
I watch jurors struggle with these questions week after week. For some people, it can be very difficult — even painful — to answer these questions. It takes courage and self-awareness to answer openly and honestly.
Why do we allow such personal questions? It’s because parties are entitled to have their cases decided by jurors who can reach a verdict based on the evidence they hear in court and not based on any preconceived ideas about the parties or the case. Let’s say you are the defendant in a civil case. You own a small business, and one of your female employees is suing you for sexual harassment. Do you think a woman who has been sexually harassed by her supervisor would be a good juror in your case? Wouldn’t you want to know of her experience and have the chance to question her to see if she might be prejudging you based on her experience? The justice system relies on jurors who make decisions based on the facts before them, not on preconceived ideas about people.
Rest assured, you are not expected to come into court without any prejudices. It is understood we all have preconceived ideas based on our experiences. If you have a personal opinion that might affect your decision about a verdict, there is no shame in letting the judge and lawyers know. It is, in fact, your civic duty to do so. The judge and attorneys are responsible for conducting jury selection and asking questions to make sure the parties end up with a jury that will make a decision based on the merits of the case. The questions you answer help them decide whether the case before the court is the kind of a case in which you can set aside personal opinions that might affect your verdict and make your decision based on the evidence you see and hear. You might be a good choice to serve as a juror for one type of case but not for another. The juror who has suffered sexual harassment at work may not be a good fit for a sexual harassment case but may be a good selection for another type of case.
Keep in mind that being excused or “struck” from a jury does not mean you have said or done anything wrong. If it’s any consolation, I have been struck from the panel every time.
Sarah E. Hennessy is a district-court judge based in the Mille Lacs County Courthouse in Milaca.