It’s your duty

Matt Peters

While some dread the experience, serving jury duty is part of democratic society

Many people try to get out of jury duty by using excuses. College classes are an acceptable excuse if the student presents a copy of his or her schedule.

Credit: Andrew popik

Portage County Jury Commissioner Marie Kunka reaches for a manila folder as she sits at her desk in her office on the third floor of the Portage County Courthouse.

Contained in the folder is a collection of handwritten excuses for every reason you could think of not to be on a jury.

For the last 15 years, Kunka has served as the Portage County jury commissioner. All juries selected during that time have gone through her. Kunka has heard excuses ranging from a man who said he snowplowed elderly people’s driveways when there was no snow on the ground to someone who said his or her dog had surgery and he or she needed to remain at home.

Some don’t even try be creative. Kunka can still remember the time she received a call from a woman who had been called in for jury duty who said, “I got your summons, and I’m not the least bit interested,” to which Kunka responded, “Ma’am, it’s not an invitation.”

There are some acceptable reasons not to serve. Among those are taking college classes. When people run into time conflicts with their assigned time, Kunka said she has always been willing to listen.

Documentation, such as a doctor’s excuse or a class schedule, is required in order to excuse the potential juror. Employers are required to excuse workers for jury duty without penalty.

“People call, and they’re very defensive sometimes,” Kunka said. “They think if they have to call an institution like the courthouse they are going to find someone who won’t listen to them.”

Over the last 15 years, Kunka said she feels as though she has developed a sense of who is lying about their excuses.

The process of selecting a jury begins every August. On the first Tuesday in August, she selects approximately 8,000 prospective jurors who can serve from September to the following August.

Every two weeks throughout the year, Kunka pulls 200 names from the master list and sends out summons. Kunka sends the summons two weeks prior to the potential juror’s service. Included with the summons is a cover letter giving instructions, a juror questionnaire form and parking information.

Questionnaires must be completed and sent back to the courthouse within seven days of receiving it. From the list of 200, she collects about 80 people who are available to serve.

The list is derived from the list of actively registered voters. There are about 67,500 registered voters in Portage County.

The only other option to track potential jurors would be through driver’s licenses, which was used 15 years ago in Portage County. However, it is easier to keep track through voter registration because people can leave the area without any notice or paperwork if it was done through drivers licenses, Kunka said.

Because registering to vote potentially signs citizens for jury duty, some people simply opt not to register to vote.

“What a foolish thing to do to give up your right to vote just to avoid jury duty,” Kunka said.

Once a juror is selected, he or she is on call for a set time period and could be selected to be on several juries. Jurors selected for Common Pleas Courts are on call for two weeks. Jurors selected for Municipal Courts are on call for one week. Jurors selected for Grand Jury are on call for three months.

Potential jurors are required to call Kunka’s office each night to see if their number is called. Jurors who do not show up can be held in contempt of court.

When potential jurors see the summons in their mailbox there are generally two common reactions to being selected for jury duty. Some people attempt to find anyway they can out of it, as demonstrated earlier, while others look forward to the experience and the ability to have a say in the community.

Emily Stine, freshman exploratory major, was still in high school when she was selected for jury duty. Despite having the excuse of attending classes, Stine still went through with the experience.

“I didn’t really want to not go,” she said. “Even my one teacher said ‘Oh that’s an awesome experience. You should go through with it.’ ”

Stine was a juror in a case involving driving under the influence. She said she couldn’t have been happier with the experience. While some people go a lifetime without ever being selected for duty, Stine served when she was just 18 years old.

“A lot of people don’t get the opportunity,” Stine said. “Jurors are pretty much all older people. It was cool being that young and going through with it. I think it was rewarding. I felt important. I never felt like I had such a say in the community like that.”

Lauren Balestrino, senior English major, had a different experience. Last summer, she dreaded being on the jury from the moment she received her summons.

“I had absolutely no interest in it,” Balestrino said. “I thought it was stupid.”

Civil cases only go to jury trials if they cannot be resolved in the mediation process where the two sides attempt to reach a settlement. Once in the courtroom, the two sides go through the process known as voir dire or jury selection. The lawyers ask potential jurors questions to determine whether they have a bias for the case.

While many people will look to the O.J. Simpson or Scott Peterson trials for their reference of courtroom knowledge, not every case is as high profile. Balestrino can attest to that.

“We basically had a hard time staying awake,” Balestrinio said. “We got some dirty looks from the judge while he sat in his big chair eating candy.”

Balestrinio, who served on a civil case, sat through trial for four days.

After the presentation of evidence, the jury deliberates and comes to a verdict.

“I learned how in-depth everything is,” Stine said. “Just going over and over the facts. I learned how the littlest facts could mean so much.”

No matter what a juror’s stance is on the experience, he or she will walk out with two material rewards: $15 a day for day he or she appeared in court and a hand-signed letter from the Portage county judges.

Contact public affairs reporter Matt Peters at [email protected].