Have you ever received a jury summons? If you haven’t, chances are you will if you live in Wilkes County long enough.
If you are like most people, you aren’t happy about being summoned for jury service. There is no doubt that you will be inconvenienced by the process. You may be tempted to not show up, even though the summons states, “Failure to obey this summons is punishable by law.”
Failure to appear may result in not having enough jurors to conduct a jury trial. Although most people summoned do appear, it is not fair to them that others do not. Often, those who are selected dread sitting on a trial jury, while others who are released once a jury is impaneled feel they won the lottery (at least a small lottery). So why is jury service so important?
The right to a trial by jury is more than 800 years old and is directly related to the Magna Carta. We should think about why we have jury trials. By the time the Revolutionary War was fought, the right to a jury trial was firmly entrenched in the English justice system to protect against tyranny. Although the English system had jury trials, the U.S. Declaration of Independence accused George III of “depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury.”
The American colonies declared themselves free states, independent from the tyranny of any King, and they fought a brutal war to maintain this declaration. By virtue of the victory over the British and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the government that we know today was established. In the preamble to the Constitution, it is declared that the primary purpose of doing so was to “establish justice”.
Article III of the U.S. Constitution states that all trials be by jury. This right was expanded with the Sixth and Seventh Amendments to the Constitution. The Sixth Amendment states in part, “In all prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a jury trial in civil cases.
North Carolina’s first state constitution guaranteed the right to a jury trial in both criminal and civil actions. Our current state constitution preserves and expands those guarantees. The N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals have upheld these rights.
So why is jury service so important? Trial by jury has always been the cornerstone of our justice system. It has always been considered of utmost importance in this nation and our state. Likewise, it is of utmost importance that citizens fulfill their obligation to serve when called. N.C. General Statute 9-6 declares that jury service is a public duty and should be considered as such by all. When citizens fail by refusing to perform this duty, our entire system of justice suffers immensely. Without jurors, our justice system is unable to operate.
The next time you are summoned to jury service, please know that your service is needed. Before you decide that jury service is not worth your time, please remember it is your civic duty to serve and be an active participant in our system of justice. Trial jurors decide the facts of a case from the evidence when in dispute. Jurors, and only jurors, are instructed to find where the truth lies in a case and render a verdict reflecting the truth.
The efficiency and integrity in which our system of justice works depends upon your compliance with the jury summons. Compliance recognizes the importance of the right to a jury trial and your responsibility to uphold that right. It also avoids unpleasant consequences of failing to comply. I implore you to comply with your jury summons.
As your senior resident Superior Court judge, I have presided over hundreds of jury trials. I often speak with jurors who have served on a jury at the conclusion of the trial. The vast majority of jurors indicate they have a better understanding of the importance of service and that their experience was a positive one. I believe given the opportunity, you would too.
Michael D. Duncan of Wilkesboro is senior resident Superior Court judge of the 23rd Judicial District, which encompasses Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin counties.