For over a decade, I have had a “Google Alert” on my phone for the terms “jury duty” and “jury service.” This means that I have reviewed every news article about juries from the smallest community newspaper to all the major publications. Usually, the articles describe how too few jurors showed up to court, or how scam artists are preying on unsuspecting jurors, or a personal reflection from a journalist about a positive experience as a juror.
The reason for this odd habit is that I wrote “Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action” (NYU Press) and have spent the past years arguing for why American citizens need to embrace the constitutional values built within jury service. My book was an effort to turn the dread of receiving the summons into a moment of joy. The joy of jury duty is both personally meaningful, but also important to the health of our democracy.
In the past year, another type of news alert has frequently appeared – stories about the hit TV show “Jury Duty.” For those who have not watched the Amazon Freevee show, it has an audacious premise: an entire jury summons and court proceeding takes place where everyone is an actor except for one unsuspecting guy. The storyline, which progressively gets more absurd, is matched by the earnestness and decency of the main character Ronald Gladden, who believes the case is real. The show is funny, even as it makes fun of jury duty.
Last night, “Jury Duty” was nominated for four Emmy Awards. It was a moment when all of Hollywood came together to decide what matters to Hollywood.
But behind the scenes there is a little push to remember why jury duty matters beyond Hollywood. You see, thanks to the generosity of NYU Press and the kindness of Backstage Creations – the company that creates the swag bag for Emmy nominees and sponsors the Backstage Emmy’s Giving Suite — the 2024 Emmy nominees got a copy of “Why Jury Duty Matters.”
Yes, those lucky Hollywood stars — recipients of the ultimate luxury swag bag filled with absurdly glamorous items, trips, and beauty products — also received a well-researched and passionate book about juries. I would have paid good money to see the quizzical expressions on the celebrities’ faces when they opened the bag and wondered how a constitutional history lesson got inserted into their luxury goodies. And yet, in terms of valuable information for democracy, the lessons are priceless.
The serious point in a fun Hollywood story is that jury duty does matter, and those who profit off its premise also have a role in supporting it as an institution. As someone who spent a legal career as a public defender entrusting juries with the liberty of my clients, and as a law professor who studies the importance of juries to the legal system, a farcical television show about jury duty creates real risks to the health of an important civic responsibility. Again, the show is outrageously funny, but is “funny” really the sentiment we want for millions of citizens called to serve?
This year, jurors will decide whether a former President is guilty of a crime. Jurors will resolve sexual harassment cases and criminal accusations against powerful figures (including some in Hollywood). Jurors will decide the fate of multi-million dollar corporations, and thousands of smaller civil and criminal cases that never get the headlines. Jurors will literally decide the most complicated and important cases in America, and it can be anything but funny.
The hope in sending “Why Jury Duty Matters” to celebrities and those with large media platforms is to remind them and all of us about the central importance of juries in America. Jury service is the only constitutional responsibility you must meet. (After all, you don’t have to vote or pay taxes… even though you should.) The right to a jury is the only right mentioned both in the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Juries have been central to American constitutional identity in both the early Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. And, more practically, jury service is one of the few small “d” democratic spaces left in America where everyone gets an equal vote no matter their job, economic status, or social position in society. In an increasingly fragmented society, these kinds of constructive places for participation and deliberation should be encouraged and nurtured.
So, congratulations to the stars of Jury Duty (the television show) for a role of a lifetime, and to jury duty (the civic responsibility) for its role in our lives. Both deserve all the accolades and attention Hollywood can muster.
Andrew Guthrie Ferguson
Professor of Law
American University Washington College of Law
An argument for the constitutional responsibility to participate in jury duty
In Why Jury Duty Matters, Andrew Guthrie Ferguson reminds us that whether we like it or not, we are all constitutional actors. Jury duty provides an opportunity to reflect on that constitutional responsibility. Combining American history, constitutional law, and personal experience, the book engages citizens in the deeper meaning of jury service. Interweaving constitutional principles into the actual jury experience, this book is a handbook for those Americans who want to enrich the jury experience. It seeks to reconnect ordinary citizens to the constitutional character of a nation by focusing on the important, and largely ignored, democratic lessons of the jury.