The Jury's Trials

Problems, Pitfalls, and Possibilities in Jury Decision Making

Celebrity Jurors

A Means of Reducing the Failure-to-appear Rate

Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray was summoned for jury duty in D.C. Superior Court last week. Rather than hiding behind his office, Mayor Gray reported along with the other jurors. Although he was dismissed without being selected, I say, kudos to Mayor Gray. It reminds me of the time several years ago when former President Clinton was summoned for jury duty in New York. He likewise reported but was excused.

It seems likely that most celebrity jurors would be excused, by virtue of their very celebrity. Not only would their involvement be a distraction--to other jurors and to everyone else in court--but they could have an undue influence on jury deliberations. Can you imagine serving on a jury with Bill Clinton? The options for foreperson are Clinton and a hedge fund manager from the Upper West Side--whom are you going to choose? And even if Clinton is not the foreperson, how could you not give his opinions an extra degree of consideration and respect, even if you didn’t vote for him as president or agree with his politics? Given his undeniable charisma and intelligence, Clinton would be an unusually persuasive juror even without his fame and record of public service; add those in, and a jury of twelve could quickly become a jury of one. So I have no quarrel with celebrities not serving on juries. Looked at another way, they are hardly the peers of most defendants.

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Nonetheless, it is important for them to participate in the process and show up when summoned, which is why I say kudos to Mayor Gray, and to President Clinton as well. Prospective jurors’ failure to appear is a notorious problem for courts around the country. A D.C. news station that covered the Gray story reported that only about one-third of those summoned in D.C. actually appear for jury duty. This means that they have to summon three times as many jurors as they actually need. So D.C. residents are that much likely to receive a summons, and the whole system is that much more costly and inefficient.

Highly visible citizens who respond to their summons set an example for the rest of us. To be sure, celebrities--especially politicians--are not idolized the way they once were. Mayor Gray and President Clinton have both weathered their share of scandals. But in showing up for jury duty, they demonstrate that it does not matter how famous, powerful, busy or important one is. They call it jury duty for a reason, and you do your duty, even if it’s inconvenient and you’d rather not. As I’ve written previously, jury service is also an important right that one should be proud to exercise. Realistically, though, it’s disruptive. It might be interesting and fulfilling in many respects, but it unavoidably interferes with life’s usual routine. The example of these celebrity jurors shows that it is important enough to put up with that disruption.

It would be interesting to see if Mayor Gray’s behavior reduces the D.C. courts’ juror failure-to-appear rate in the coming months. My cynical side tells me that it probably won’t. But if it does, then I envision a series of public service announcements by all sorts of celebrity pitchmen-and-women, touting the virtues of jury service, and simply participating in the process themselves, even if they do not end up sitting on a trial. Celebrities are too often examples of what not to do. It’s reassuring to know that occasionally, they can still show us the right path to follow.

Brian Bornstein, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology in the Law-Psychology, Social, and Cognitive Psychology Programs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. more...

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