#ProjectCitizen: Serving on a jury is one of the few requirements of being a US citizen

A woman stands in the doorway of a courtroom at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
A woman stands in the doorway of a courtroom at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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This is one part in a new KPCC series looking at the rights, responsibilities, traditions and privileges that come along with being a citizen. Let us know what you think.

Do a Google search on “How to get out of jury duty” and you’ll find what depths people sink to in the U.S. to avoid the one thing they’re required to do as a citizen. People act like jerks, claim racial biases, and pretend to be crazy. In the sitcom “30 Rock,” Tina Fey’s character – Liz Lemon – gives shirking jury duty a particularly creative try. 

She dons a Princess Leia costume, tucks old Playgirl issues under her arm, and heads to court. 

"I don’t think it’s really fair for me to be on a jury, because I am a hologram,” Lemon tells the judge, who is unswayed. 

“You seem fine to me," he tells her. View the video below.

In 2011, about 2.3 million people were sent jury summons in L.A. County. Just over half of them actually reported for duty. And about a quarter of jurors who showed up were excused for hardships. The most common reason was a medical condition. Marissa Batt is a retired deputy DA from L.A. County. She said jury avoidance is widespread.

RELATED: #ProjectCitizen: What does citizenship mean to you?

“In fact, many people think only dimwits end up doing jury duty," Batt said. "That anyone with a modicum of intelligence can come up with a viable excuse.”

Batt said it can be hard to find the right people for each trial when the pool dwindles with dropouts. She served on a jury trial once in a civil case. Batt said the jurors signed on to the eventual verdict, but two of them did so without ever understanding the case. And the legitimacy of the court system depends on effective juries.

"I think if people were more educated as to how important this is, they would be more eager to participate," Batt said.

Courts have tried various ways of making jury duty more attractive. They have put wi-fi in juror break rooms and have systems where people serve one day or one trial, instead of repeatedly coming back to the courthouse. Los Angeles County’s Superior Court now has an online portal where jurors can come in late if they watch a video, starring presiding Judge David Wesley.

In the video, Wesley acknowledges lackluster enthusiasm for the  task ahead.

“I know jury service may be inconvenient to you," he said. "But it’s something real you can do to guarantee justice to everyone in L.A. County.” 

Of course, there are some who actually enjoy serving. Michael Kurland is an academic advisor at USC. When he got his jury summons, he ended up on a murder trial.

“I’m a highly educated person," Kurland said.  "I’m someone who critically thinks. I think I’m the type of person who should be on a jury, so I don’t mind going to serve.” 

He said the general broken down atmosphere of the courthouse sends the wrong message.

“The bathrooms are run down, the seats are broken," Kurland said. "All of that kind of combines into this, like, 'We don’t care.' If they don’t care, then why would anybody else care.”

While a courthouse in need of renovation doesn’t help, avoiding jury duty is an age-old problem, said Cornell University Law Professor Valerie Hans.

“In fact there are some wonderful old historical documents from early England talking about the King having trouble assembling representative jury panels from the nobles," Hans said.

As much as we, and apparently, some of our ancestors groan about it, people hardly ever actually have to serve. She’s been studying juries for four decades and she thinks jury duty brings out a sort of anxiety in people.

“That they actually are going to be required to step up and perform a serious job for society," Hans said. 

Studies show that people are happy once they do serve. And it turns out when they participate in this aspect of our democracy, they’re more likely to engage in other civic activities, like voting.

Citizens will likely never perform their jury duty, willingly. But, as Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s character learned, judges don’t really care if you’re willing or not.