There is no way to know for sure what percentage of reasons that prospective jurors give for being “unable” to serve on a jury are legitimate. Jury duty is typically viewed as an inconvenience, with individuals being asked to give up their days for anywhere from a day to numerous months. Oftentimes potential jurors are more unwilling to serve than they are unable. Excuses range from the entirely permissible to downright fraudulent. There are even web sites explaining how to get out of jury duty. Sometimes it is hard to know whether someone is trying to evade jury duty or they have a legitimate excuse.

It should be noted that we are talking about a duty. If jury service were seen as other than a duty, then no one would have to serve and the right to a jury trial would be lost. Because it is a duty, one former federal judge, Judge Edward Weinfeld of the Southern District of New York, never thanked jurors for their service on the logical predicate that since they were doing what they were required to do, as was the case with him, there was nothing to thank.

When someone says they cannot serve because they have to report to prison in a week (which I have heard) it obviously means they have a real conflict. Engaging in untruthful behavior in open court to a Judge is something most people try to avoid. On the other end of the spectrum, and something I also heard from a potential 84-year-old juror last month, was that, “I do not think I am capable of serving on this jury because I just don’t want to serve on a jury.” Most reasons for not serving are more equivocal, and this is where it is up to the Judge to determine what reasons are valid for shunning jury duty and which ones aren’t. As can be imagined, there is a great deal of judicial discretion here and consequently a broad variety of responses to hardship requests. The Judges control the process.

A majority of people seeking to be dismissed from serving say that they have work or family commitments. Childcare issues and responsibility of caring for elderly family members are commonplace. Also a common “excuse” is an already purchased plane ticket, or how a particular individual is integral to his or her place of work. Sometimes students are let go if they have an exam in the immediate future. One thing is for sure, and that is a Judge should announce who is excused for hardship later in the process after each and every juror made his or her hardship request. Otherwise, if a Judge dismisses a juror in full view of everyone else, copycats emerge and you can bet when people see what it takes to get off of jury duty (i.e., have to pick up a child at school and no one else on this earth can) some will know what to say to get removed. Accepted excuses spread like wildfire.

Here is my all-time favorite exchange between a lawyer (and my client) and a prospective juror that led to the juror’s dismissal.

Attorney (to everyone in the venire): Does anyone here, for whatever reason, think they would have a tough time being fair to me or my client?

Juror 84: Sorry, I have to speak up. I don’t know you or anything about you, but you look exactly like my ex-husband so I might have a tough time believing anything that comes out of your mouth. 

Attorney: Thank you for your honesty I am glad you spoke up.