As we approach 8 months of immersion in the ever-changing “new normal” during the pandemic, my firm Trial Methods surveyed members of the public to gauge how people generally feel about being called to in-person jury duty. We also explored what people think about litigants who are essentially asking citizens to show up and resolve disputes with origins that pre-date the pandemic.
The results over the last several months have shown that while most people generally have concerns about being in a room with a large group of people even with built-in protections (i.e., masks, social distancing, accessible sanitizer, etc.), three-quarters say they would heed the call and show up to court if summoned for jury duty. This 75% has been consistent across jurisdictions, both state and federal, and country regions. Factors such as whether Covid-19 cases are surging in a particular venue or may be waning in others will affect that 75% number but not by a lot. The main reason is that prospective jurors trust courts when it comes to implementing safety guidance and believe that if jurors are called to potentially serve that means the courts (which to jurors is synonymous with “judges” whom they hold in high regard) believe it is safe to conduct a trial with proper safeguards built in to the process. On the flip side, most feel that if things weren’t safe to have an in-person jury trial then community members wouldn’t be asked to appear in the first place. As I found in my previous nationwide survey in June on the topic of jury trials during Covid-19 in 2020, most people with certain underlying health conditions and those who have been avoiding large crowds still indicate they will show up if called. During the pandemic there seems to be a greater tendency to defer to authority. With many institutions under attack, courthouses have largely remained unblemished in the public’s eye.
From a demographic perspective, one trend worth noting is that younger jurors were more likely to say they will not show up for jury duty. It is probable that this age group has historically tried to shun serving on a jury and now the fear of Covid-19 is being used as a pretext for desired exclusion from the process. Many in this younger, more mobile group in the “gig” economy see jury service as a pointless inconvenience and tend to overall be more disengaged (i.e., not voting) from civil discourse. Perhaps the large-scale youth turnout we saw in the 2020 election could signal a change in terms of fundamental democratic participation which may extend to future juries. At the other end of the age spectrum, while individuals over the age of 65 say they would show up if called to serve, they could be noticeably missing from jury service until an effective treatment or vaccine emerges. If you believe your corporate defendant has an advantage by seeing fewer iGen and Gen Z individuals this may be offset when the number of baby boomers and members of the silent generation showing up for jury duty is reduced.
A few other telling findings pertain to a prospective juror’s place of residence and political party. Juries that will more accurately reflect the composition of the entire venue will most likely be in rural and exurban settings, while juries situated in denser more urban areas could miss a swath of people that ultimate skews the jury pool. Finally, those who indicated they wouldn’t show up for jury duty were more likely to identify as Democrats. Political party does not typically correlate to eventual case-specific outlook but it co-varies with many other attributes that make one more or less likely to side with or against a plaintiff in a lawsuit against a corporation.
What about shifting or stagnant attitudinal perspectives of those who could potentially serve as a juror during the world of Covid-19? Among the most consistent findings are that 58% of the jury-eligible populace feels that corporations are using Covid-19 as an excuse to get away with things they never used to get away with. This is a very general statement but the fact that 58% agree with it shows a newfangled distrust of companies in the context of Covid-19. Many in this 58% category likely harbored anti-corporate sentiment prior to Covid-19 and continue to filter subsequent news, information and events consistent with this overarching outlook which by way of logical extension concludes companies are exploiting Covid-19 to their advantage. Still, this high number suggests some heightened anti-company bias.
What about companies seen as trying to be part of the solution in the wake of Covid-19? Here we see a pretty even split with half of respondents indicating corporations that have helped during the crisis should be given the benefit of the doubt in a legal dispute. Imagine the good graces that will benefit Moderna or Pfizer in court if they deliver an effective vaccine. A similar percentage (half) says corporations trying to help out during Covid-19 are just doing it for the good publicity. Again, pre-Covid-19 attitudes about large corporations have likely adapted steadily to the realities of the pandemic world in 2020.
The data shows that 44% believe that if they were called to jury duty during the pandemic and ended up serving, they would be mad at one, both or all of the parties involved for making them sit as a juror. This suggests a significant number of jurors will hold a grudge at the outset which means thorough questioning on the topic during voir dire will be essential to ascertain which party is the recipient of pre-existing ill-will. Wariness does not only extend to a large company as my research found that roughly one-third of jury-eligibles says they would have less sympathy for someone bringing a lawsuit during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lastly, we asked members of the public over the age of 18 whether, if called to serve on a jury, the experience of serving on a jury would make it either a) challenging to focus on the case given everything going on in the world or b) a nice distraction from it all. Not surprisingly we see an even 50-50 split on this question.