How Are Potential Jurors Chosen in Pennsylvania?
The first stage in jury selection is summoning a pool of potential jurors from the list of local citizens eligible to serve on a jury in Pennsylvania, as described above.
In most PA counties, the list of names used to randomly call people for jury duty is created by combining the county voter registration rolls and the Pennsylvania DMV licensed driver records.
Receiving a Jury Duty Summons in Pennsylvania
If your name is randomly selected for the jury pool through the process described above, you receive a jury summons in the mail instructing you to appear for jury selection on a pre-set day.
While there are a few excuses for getting out of jury selection in PA, most people summoned will have to report to the courthouse for the next stage of the juror selection process, voir dire.
The Juror Selection Process, or "Voir Dire"
Just because you qualify to be a juror and are summoned for jury selection, doesn't mean that you will be selected to be a juror on a case. The process of "Voir Dire", the actual act of jury selection, is how judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors actually choose the individuals who will sit on the juries for upcoming criminal and civil cases.
During the voir dire process, each lawyer will ask the pool of potential jurors a series of questions about their background, beliefs, prejudices, or relationships with any party to the case. While the goal is to select an impartial jury to render a verdict, each attorney will also seek to exclude any jurors who seem to be more likely to vote against their client's interests. While jury candidates are instructed to be open and truthful when answering such questions, the juror selection process is also where most individuals who don't wish to serve on a trial find a way to be excused from further juror duties.
What Happens After Jury Selection Day
If you are selected to serve on a jury, you will be provided with the trial date, and must return to serve on the jury for the duration of the trial and deliberations. If you were not selected to serve on any jury during the voir dire process, you can go home, and your Pennsylvania jury duty obligations are complete.
You will receive nominal Pennsylvania jury duty pay for the jury selection day, as well as for any days served on a jury. Once your service is complete, you won't be summoned for jury duty again until Pennsylvania re-adds you to the potential juror pool.
After some breaks and disruptions because of the pandemic, in-person jury trials have resumed in Philadelphia, which means that you can get called for jury duty. But, like everything else, it doesn’t look exactly the same as it did before COVID-19.
Philadelphia courts suspended jury trials in March 2020. Criminal jury trials made a brief return in September, but were suspended again in November as COVID-19 case counts began to climb again. Civil jury trials remained suspended until earlier this month. Now, both are back with some alterations.
“We want to balance safety, we want to balance people’s rights, we want to balance access,” says Gabriel Roberts, a spokesperson for the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania. “We had a lot of really good leaders trying to make sure this is done in a way that made it familiar to people, but also emphasized the safety precautions during a pandemic.”
Restarting jury trials hasn’t been easy. Trials have been delayed because of possible COVID-19 exposure. Vaccine access for courthouse workers and others who have to appear in person has also been an issue.
For now at least, jury trials are back on, and so is jury duty. Here is what you need to know:
You will receive a document known as a summons, which gets mailed to your home. It’s essentially a court order that details when and where you’ll need to appear — either at City Hall for a civil case or the Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice for criminal cases. You will also receive a questionnaire about who you are and where you live, which you need to return within five days of you receiving it, according to the Philadelphia Courts website (it can also be filled out online).
Jury selection is random, and pulls from voter registrations and Bureau of Motor Vehicles lists, so don’t feel like you’re being singled out.
To qualify for service,you must meet several requirements, including:
You are at least 18, a U.S. citizen, and a Philadelphia resident.
You don’t have convictions for crimes that are punishable by prison terms of more than a year.
You can speak, read, and write in English.
You are mentally and physically able to “perform the functions of a juror.”
You do not have to do jury duty if:
You are 75 or older (though you can do jury duty if you want).
You are in active military service.
You did jury duty that lasted three days or longer in the last three years, or that lasted less than three days in the past year.
Because a juror summons is a court order, ignoring it could result in a fine of up to $500, or even imprisonment for no more than 10 days.
Philadelphia once had a court dedicated to folks who skip out on jury duty. Juror Scofflaw Court was launched in 2000 by Common Pleas Court Judge John W. Herron, but took a long hiatus before returning in 2014, when it brought in a few hundred scofflaws, according to an Inquirer report. That program hasn’t been used since 2016.
More than one-third of Philadelphians don’t respond to calls for jury service, according to a 2018 study from the First Judicial District. In an informal survey, residents cited a number of reasons, including scheduling conflicts, low juror pay ($9 a day for the first three days, and $25 a day after that), mistrust of the criminal justice system, and family and financial hardships.
Jury duty is one of only a few civic duties we have, as well as one that can have a real, direct impact, says Roberts, and it’s “a shame” that we have low response rates (though that problem is not unique to Philly).
“If you don’t like what’s being done in the justice system, if you feel as though police are treating your community unfairly, or if you feel like you want more of a presence in your community, whatever your bag is, you can come to jury duty, and you can have a say for at least one day in one case in one person’s life,” he says. “This is liberty we’re talking about here.”
If you have a conflict with the date of your jury duty, or have an issue that prevents you from serving, the court will consider a request for postponement of your appearance, or, in cases of extreme hardship, excuse you entirely. During the pandemic, Roberts says, those accommodations may also apply to concerns about COVID-19.
“We tend to be forgiving when it comes to excuses for jurors because we don’t want to create hardships for people,” Roberts says.
You can request to postpone online on the questionnaire portion of your summons, and in most cases, you should be able select a new date that works better for you.
If you have an extreme hardship that prevents serving — like medical or physical issues, trouble finding child care, or lost wages — make a note of that on the “remarks” section of the questionnaire. You will need to provide a letter, from someone line your doctor or boss, to certify the hardship.
If you have questions about postponing, you can call the Jury Commission at 215-683-7170.
When you go to either City Hall or the CJC, you’ll notice a few changes, starting with the familiar CDC guidelines, such as required masking, social distancing, plenty of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, enhanced cleaning, and acrylic glass partitions to separate folks where distancing is not possible. You’ll also be asked COVID-19 screening questions by jury staff.
There will be fewer people around, as the city is conducting limited jury trials, so don’t expect the same bustling, “Grand Central Station feel” of yesteryear, Roberts says.
If you’re called for a civil trial, you’ll be one of about 80 potential jurors — or two full panels — asked to come in on Thursdays and Fridays, and there are plans to increase that to 120 people in April. If you’re called for a criminal trial, you’ll be one of about 120 potential jurors and will have to come in Monday through Thursday.
Juror groups will be kept in two separate rooms in each building to accommodate social distancing. The initial “voir dire,” or process in which judges and counsel ask jurors questions to determine whether they should be on the jury, will happen in those rooms, following by an individual voir dire in a separate room.
If you are selected to serve, there will be more noticeable changes, Roberts says, mostly to the setup of the courtroom. For example, rather than sitting in a jury box, where social distancing isn’t possible, you’ll be sitting in the “gallery” of the room, or the area where members of the public would usually sit. The “well” of the courtroom, or where most of the action takes place, will have spaced out tables and chairs for trial participants. Judges and other court staff will be in their usual spots but separated by acrylic glass.
Additionally, to accommodate public access, civil trials are livestreamed via YouTube. Criminal trials were also streamed online in the past, but, Roberts says, will now have a feed into a separate courtroom in the CJC, where people in the courthouse can watch the proceedings live.
“All these little things come together to make the experience a little different in terms of what you’re seeing in front of you,” Roberts says. “But justice is still moving along.”
» READ MORE: Our best Philly tips: Read our most useful stories
Gabriel Roberts, spokesperson for the First Judicial District.
About Jury Service
Jury duty is one of the only opportunities citizens have to participate directly in our process of governance. And, unlike voting, it is mandatory, not discretionary. The Courts recognize that jury duty imposes a heavy burden on many citizens. Those who fulfill their civic duty will find that they are appreciated by the court system and often report that serving was a positive and educational experience.
STEPS TO A SMOOTH JURY EXPERIENCE
- Fill out the jury duty questionnaire your county sends you.
- Respond to any summons for jury duty you receive within the timelines required.
- Make arrangements with your employer and for any child or elder care you need to cover the day you are scheduled to report.
- If the county offers the opportunity to confirm the need to report by telephone or e-mail the day before you are scheduled for jury duty, do it. You can find a list of telephone numbers and Web sites for county courthouses on the Pennsylvanian's for Modern Court's Juror's Guide.
- Locate directions to the courthouse and nearby, affordable parking in advance.
- Arrive on time and report promptly to the jury room.
- Bring some reading material or a small project (cross word puzzles, bill paying, letter writing) that you can comfortably carry.
- Bring some snacks in case you get hungry.
- Remember that many courthouses will not permit you to bring cellular phones or small electronic devices inside and that you may be required to check them with security. You may wish to call the courthouse in advance to check the security policy.
- Follow all instructions given by court personnel and judges.
WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS TO SERVE AS A JUROR?To serve as a juror, one must be: a United States citizen and a resident of the county in which you are summoned; at least 18 years old; able to read, write and speak English; and must not have been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year. Individuals age 75 or older are not required to serve, but they may serve if they wish.
HOW ARE JURORS SELECTED?Jury selection begins when a name is randomly selected from a master list of prospective jurors in the county, compiled from various sources, including voter and motor vehicle registration lists, personal tax rolls and other sources. Those randomly selected citizens are sent a summons, which is a court order stating the required time and place to appear.
The jury pool is composed of those people summoned to appear on a particular day. Juries are selected from the jury pool. In criminal cases, the jury is made up of twelve jurors, except in the rare case of the parties agreeing to fewer. In civil cases, the jury can consist of as few as six jurors or as many as twelve. Alternate jurors may also be chosen to avoid unnecessary delays or expense in the event of the incapacity of a juror.
RESPONDING TO A SUMMONS FOR JURY DUTY
What if I am unable to serve on the day I was called?In most cases, the court will do what it can to accommodate you and will often permit you to postpone the date. Read your summons to determine the courts policies for rearranging the date or call the court directly. Do not ignore your summons.
How do I get out of Jury Duty?Serving on a jury is an awesome responsibility and is one of the only opportunities citizens have to participate directly in our process of governance. And, unlike voting, it is mandatory, not discretionary. PMC urges all citizens to respond to summons for jury duty and to put forth their best effort to serve when called. PMC recognizes, as do the Courts, that jury duty imposes a heavy burden on many citizens. However, those who fulfill their civic duty will find that they are appreciated by the court system and often report that serving was a positive and educational experience.
The jury system is the foundation of our system of justice. If we as citizens do not assume the mantel of responsibility, we cannot ensure that fair juries will be found to decide the cases in which we may be involved. Remember, you would want a fair, unbiased jury to decide your case. The only way to achieve that is to commit to serve when called for jury duty.
However, courts do understand that there may be substantial and legitimate reasons that inhibit your ability to serve, and they have developed procedures to ease the burdens of service.
Are certain individuals exempt from jury service?In Pennsylvania, no one is excused or exempt from jury duty except those who:1. Are in active service of the Armed Forces;
2. Have served on jury duty within three years of their current summons. However, if such person served as a juror for fewer than three days, the exemption period is only one year; OR
3. Demonstrate to the court undue hardship or extreme inconvenience. You will be excused permanently or the length of time the court deems necessary.42 Pa. C.S. § 4503.If you satisfy one of these conditions and wish to seek an exemption from jury duty you must mail a written request to the court. This request must be received and approved prior to the date you are scheduled to serve. Do not simply ignore your summons.
What happens if I ignore my summons?A juror summons is a court order. Any juror who fails to appear when summoned may be fined and/or imprisoned for contempt of court. 42 Pa. C.S. § 4584.
How often do I have to serve?Following jury service, a citizen shall be exempt from jury duty for 3 years provided s/he served at least 3 days. Those who served for fewer than 3 days results in an exemption for one year. 42 Pa. C.S. § 4584.
This information has been adapted from information provided by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. Please visit www.pmconline.org for additional information about Jury Duty and the Courts.
Can COVID concerns get me out of jury duty? Can the courts legally ask if I’m vaccinated?
As COVID numbers relax and more people get vaccinated against the virus, Philadelphia is beginning to re-notice individuals for in-person jury duty service.
Pre-pandemic, you may have had the experience of getting dismissed from jury duty because of important work, family constraints, or health conditions.
But now, can having concerns about getting COVID get you out of this civic responsibility? And can the courts ask you about your vaccination status?
Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn posed these questions to attorney Joe Oxman. He practices law in Pennsylvania and is a member of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association.
Here’s some of what he had to say.
As of now, the courts, either the Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania or the federal courts for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Middle or Western District, or the Third Circuit, have not issued any edicts related to expanding the excuses for jury service to include COVID-19.
So it would be perhaps entirely up to individual judges to determine this?
Absolutely. It will be completely up to individual judges to determine whether or not a juror’s concern about COVID-19 would warrant a legitimate excuse to get out of serving jury duty.
Courts are asking potential jurors if they have recently had COVID symptoms, if they have COVID symptoms, if they think they’ve been exposed.
Yes, there has been circulating within the Court of Common Pleas and the federal courts a COVID-19 checklist that all the jurors fill out. I think if anyone checks a box in that questionnaire, I think they would be excused.
Can courts ask about vaccination status?
That’s a good question. I couldn’t tell you exactly. The courts have not decided whether or not they’re going to ask that question. And there hasn’t been any issue raised by trial counsel, either plaintiffs, defendants, or prosecutors related to that in terms of voir dire of jurors.
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