Monday, November 17, 2014

Jury duty (especially on a "grand jury" or a big trial) can cause issues for bloggers and journalists


The current media attention to the grand jury convening in Ferguson, MO to consider whether to indict a particular police officer for the death of Michael Brown brings up and important topic for bloggers and journalists:  what happens when a news person is called for an extended period of jury duty?
  
I do see that I last took this up in June 2012 but it’s time for another look. 
  
When I lived in Dallas in the 1980s, Texas had a “one day or one trial” system.  My name came up about every two years.  I actually served on two trials: a two-day weapons trial in 1982, where we convicted someone, and a malpractice civil trial in 1986 where the parties settled on the second day.  Both of these experiences yield some detail that is worth further exploration at another time, probably on my Wordpress blogs.  The Texas system tends to promote very brief periods of jury duty that don’t usually create significant conflicts. 

In Arlington VA, the procedure is to send a questionnaire to a randomly chosen group of voters every year.  The summons must be answered within 10 days.  Then during the following calendar year the person may be called for one week or more (if a trial lasts longer).  Persons over 70 can refuse to serve. The site is here.
  
From 1949 to her passing in 2010, I believe my mother received questionnaires twice, and served once, for a week, I believe in 1987.  I don’t believe my father ever served (he passed in 1986).  This seems like a low probability event.
  
Federal procedures seem to be similar (site) with pay now $40 a day with expenses, possibly $50 a day for longer periods.  There is a questionnaire and a separate summons for actual service.
In northern Virginia, criminal federal trials would occur in Alexandria.  There is a slight possibility that few trials can be prolonged and high-profile, as related to terrorism or major corruption.    In recent years, federal trials, such as for sex offenses involving minors or child pornography, seem to have become a little more common, and some could be controversial.   But frequency of service seems to be very low, maybe once in 25 or 30 years in northern Virginia.
  
A big wild card is grand jury duty, as noted by circumstances now near St. Louis. Grand juries come from the same pool as petit juries (for civil and criminal trials).  Grand jury terms can run from one to three years.  And “retired” people, like those in my circumstances, are more likely to be “invited” to actually serve on grand juries if their names come up randomly.  The typical pattern, in both federal and state courts, is for the number of days a week to go down after the first 30-60 days of the term.  Often, a grand jury may meet only one day a week, if there are no controversial cases around.
  
This raises the obvious question, for me at least: use of social media and the web.  We all know that in the most extreme trials (like OJ Simpson in the 1990s in Los Angeles), jurors may be sequestered and kept from all media contact, including now Internet use.  But these cases are rare.
  

The possibility that juror Internet use could amount to misconduct and could nullify a verdict later is serious.  Online articles on the topic vary widely right now on how courts handle this.
  
It certainly is not a problem for me to avoid mention of a case (online or even in person) while I am on a jury, particularly if is an “ordinary”, short trial that is over in 2-3 days.  But grand jury service, since it is more likely at my age, and because it runs a long time, can present “conflict of interest” issues similar to those of other (management) employment. 
  
In fact, my activity would be problematic because I don’t use it for “socializing” directly the way others do, as to present my own news commentary, which because of the nature of the “concentric” positions I take, covers almost all topics, including crime and intellectual property torts (like libel, copyright and trademark) that could wind up in court on my own plate as a potential juror.  The problem for me that a comment online on these blogs about almost any topic could be viewed as at least indirectly showing prejudice or a propensity to view a certain defendant or plaintiff a certain way from preconceived ideas. Similar conflicts, as I have noted, can exist between self-published online writings and the workplace (where there are subordinates), schools (where students get grades) and even election law.  Ideas in my world (like race and sexual orientation) are always presumed to be potentially connected. 


Certainly, I would allow (even invite) attorneys in a voir dire to look at my materials online and draw their own conclusions.  It is certainly possible the pre-emptory strikes could result.
  
However, I could not “afford” to stop online social media or blogging activity for an extended period just out of “hyper-concern” over a particular case (especially in “OJ-like” circumstances).  The problem is that, under the circumstances, I might lose the sites or never be able to resume.  So this would indeed involve “sacrifice”.
  
Grand jury duty invokes other ideas about “service” indeed, because it can run so long and create conflicts.   There are other areas where “seniors” do some of the service, such as working on election days as “election judges” where the days are very long and there is a shortage of “volunteers”. 
  
If I do ever get a questionnaire summons (and I am probably “overdue” for one), I might refer to this posting in the answer. 





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