Dacier’s Take on. . . John Adams and Jury Duty Today

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Imagine John Adams, principal draftsman of the Massachusetts Constitution, coming back to life in 2013 after being asked to serve on a jury. Given his high regard for the judicial branch of government, we think he would like what he sees. Articles XII and XV of our state constitution — providing for a trial before a jury of one’s peers in criminal prosecutions and civil disputes respectively — remain exactly as he wrote them in October of 1779.

Adams might experience culture shock were he to see that more than a year ago, the Office of Massachusetts Jury Commissioner Pam Wood released a revised edition of the Trial Juror Handbook, and all because of technology. Sent with every summons to a potential juror, the new handbook includes “explicit cautions against using social media to share or gather information about a case or the experience of jury service, or using the internet to do research about the case or the people involved in it.”

Our founding father might be wowed by recent innovations designed to save time and money – especially for the businesses and institutions whose employees are summoned to jury duty.  Not to mention making the most of jurors’ time. Thanks to www.majury.gov, Adams would have the option of responding online to the jury summons that arrives in his mail box. While just 20% of prospective jurors chose to reply online in 2008, the site is now the preferred mode of response.

According to Wood, responding online offers all the ease of booking a plane ticket. You can fill out the demographic survey and select your own date to serve if you need to defer. There is a calendar that shows what’s available and what’s not, and if the date is available, you’ve got it.

While the Office of the Jury Commissioner still gets hundreds of calls per day, the volume of calls has dropped dramatically, requiring fewer people to staff the call center. Similarly, postage expenses have dropped.

Adams might not have the time to visit Gillette Stadium, just a short distance away from his native Quincy. But he might be amazed to learn that the difference between the number of people who previously reported for juror service and the number who report today would more than fill the stadium. In 2012, only 219,562 reported for jury duty in Massachusetts, and the great majority served for one day.

Hard data helps to determine the size of the jury for a particular type of case, and the number of cases coming in.  As a result, the jury pool officer can now determine the exact number of jurors that will be needed on a particular day, and the number of juror summonses has dropped.

Technology aside, Adams would be pleased to see that the Office of the Jury Commissioner performs the work essential for safeguarding the same democratic values underpinning our Constitution. Were he to tour other jurisdictions, he might see buses dispatched to a Walmart parking lot for the purpose of rounding up jurors without whom a trial cannot begin.

Wood assures us that for the last decade, Massachusetts had an adequate supply of jurors, making such sweeps unnecessary. More important, diligent efforts result in representative samples of the jury pool, remaining faithful to the concept of “a juror of one’s peers.”