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Judge's View: Jury selection really is random

A friend of mine recently received a jury summons in the mail, his third in the past several years. Mostly in jest (I think), he accused the selection process of being somewhat less than random. I have had similar comments from jurors in my trials, as there are almost always at least a couple people who previously served.

Rest assured, the process is random and is required to be by our court rules. Our sources for potential jurors in state courts are voter-registration lists and driver's licenses as well as state identification cards issued to non-drivers. From that pool of people, names are randomly selected by a computer program, and the summonses are automatically generated to be mailed out to the lucky winners. Judges or court staff do not have the ability to hand-pick prospective jurors.

The summons also serves as a questionnaire regarding basic qualifications and demographic information so we can track whether our jury pools are a representative sample of the community.

To be qualified in state court, a juror must be a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years of age, a resident of the county issuing the summons, able to communicate in English, and physically and mentally capable of serving. Anyone with a prior felony conviction must have had their civil rights restored to be eligible to serve. People over 70 can opt out of serving if they choose, and judges are automatically disqualified.

Also, relevant to my friend, anyone who served as a state or federal juror in the last four years also is disqualified.

No one may be excluded from jury service on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, marital status, disability, occupation, sexual orientation or economic status. Eligible persons may be deferred or excused for medical reasons or hardship, although they might need to provide some verification. Members and employees of the Legislature are excused from jury service while the Legislature is in session. Candidates for elected office are deferred from service until after the election. Court staff keep a record of the reason for any juror excused or deferred.

The term of jury service in larger counties is limited to two weeks. Smaller counties (with populations less than 100,000) can have service periods of several months, but those jurors who serve on a trial are excused for the remainder of that period. Grand juries also typically have longer periods of service.

Finally, the courts are required to "achieve optimum use with minimum inconvenience to jurors." In other words, we try not to call you down to the courthouse unless we really need you and only call in the number of jurors we should need for the type of case. Even so, sometimes cases settle at the last minute and we have to send jurors home. That is something we track carefully and discuss at our periodic judges' meetings; we want to avoid wasting people's time.

We all know most people are not exactly thrilled to receive that summons in the mail, but we try to ensure the selection process is fair. And, like I told my friend, if he's really that lucky, he probably should buy a lottery ticket.

Judge Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife Barbara now live in Hermantown with their four children.