BY AUDREY I. PHEFFER
Every citizen has a right to a trial by a jury of their peers, and in a county like Queens with its 162 nationalities, that calls for a veritable melting pot. Yet, a great many Queens residents ignore the juror questionnaire they receive from my office, and inexplicably abandon their legal obligation and, in fact, their community.
A jury, the impartial fact-finder that determines guilt and innocence in criminal cases and liability or lack thereof in civil cases, works best when it contains a representative cross section of the community. A jury that mirrors the diverse ethnic, social, economic and political perspectives and values of the borough is best equipped to sit in judgment of its fellow citizens and render a verdict that is fair and consistent with the law, while also reflecting the common experiences of the community.
But that promise went unfulfilled for many generations.
Since the first juries were comprised of the social elite, they tended to represent the interests and viewpoints of the privileged. That problem was addressed by extending jury eligibility to anyone registered to vote, but at a time when African Americans were not eligible to vote and therefore ineligible to sit as jurors. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions beginning in 1880 with Strauder v. West Virginia put an end to official discrimination.
And then there were the exemptions: Until relatively recently, people in 22 different occupations, ranging from lawyers and doctors to embalmers, were exempt from jury service in New York State.
Thankfully, all those impediments and perks are now gone, and any citizen over the age of 18 who is a resident of Queens, able to understand English and does not have a felony record is able to serve. Finally, we have arrived at a point in our history where a truly diverse jury pool is at least possible! Finally, the citizenry has the full power envisioned by our constitution!
But many view jury duty as an annoying inconvenience, to be evaded if at all possible; every week, we send out about 15,000 questionnaires to determine if an individual is eligible, and we’re lucky if half of them come back.
Frankly, it breaks my heart.
Besides the fact that citizens are legally required to respond, whether they ultimately qualify or not (failure to do so is a crime carrying a possible fine of up to $1,000 and/or 30-day jail sentence), the personal experience is just too valuable to pass up. Along with the voting booth, the jury box provides an incredible opportunity for common citizens to actively participate in and influence the course of our democracy as the conscience of the community.
We’ve tried to do our part to make jury service an empowering and pleasant experience; if you serve, you could be paid $40 a day, and all of our facilities are WiFi compatible.
Now it’s time for you, my fellow residents of Queens, to grasp the power provided by the United States and New York State constitutions. Please, stand up and make a difference.
Audrey Pheffer is Queens County Clerk and Commissioner of Jurors.