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You're summoned for jury duty - now what?

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You're summoned for jury duty - now what?
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Don't panic! It's really not that bad.

In fact, jury duty can be a fun, educational experience. And, should you be selected, life as you know it does not come to a standstill for three months.

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"Until people see it firsthand and participate, [jury duty] is kind of a scary thing," said Donna Kirckof, Douglas County court operations supervisor. "But most people find it interesting."

"We have people say it was wonderful, that it was not what they thought it would be," Rhonda Bot, Douglas County court administrator, agreed.

To assuage the worries experienced by some residents when they get that summons, Bot and Kirckof explained the basics of jury duty.

Each jury-duty term lasts three months. Prior to each term, the court receives a random list of 200 eligible jurors from the state court administration - gleaned from driver's licenses, Minnesota state IDs and voter registrations.

Of those 200 names, more than half are automatically eliminated because of death, a move to another state, medical reasons or age (residents older than 70 are not required to report for jury duty). Some are also excused because of their profession.

This leaves the local court system with a pool of about 80 names for each jury term. Six weeks prior to the beginning of the term, those select few are sent a jury questionnaire form. They have 10 days to return the form; if they don't, a second notice goes out.

The third time is not a charm - it will result in an "order to show cause" and an appearance before the judge.

The 80 or so jurors then attend a video presentation prepared by the state that explains the obligations, expectations and rules. Then they are ready to be summoned for duty.

"There is a misconception that they are on for three months and they will have to come in every day," Bot said of people's wariness about jury duty. "It shakes them up."

That's not how it works. Trials are only scheduled two weeks out of each month. And of the 80 final jurors, only 40 are summoned for each trial - a random selection made by computer. Frequently, the trial is settled out of court, and the prospective jurors are advised of this ahead of time so they don't have to come in.

"Once you explain there are only trials two weeks out of the month and you don't get called for each trial, it alleviates some of their worry," Kirckof said.

For each trial, the 40 jurors selected are questioned by the attorneys and the judge to narrow it down to 12 jurors and one or two alternates.

"They want people neutral, coming in with no preconceived ideas on guilt or innocence," Bot said of how the final selection is made.

For example, if a potential juror has been a victim of sexual assault, and it is a criminal sexual assault trial, that person would likely not be selected.

When the final jurors and alternates are selected, they are instructed not to read the newspaper, go online, or do any investigation on their own regarding the case to which they are assigned.

In Douglas County, Bot estimates that on average, trials last only two days, with some more in-depth cases, such as malpractice or certain civil cases taking up to a week.

If a juror decides not to show up for a trial, a warrant is issued, which has only happened once in Bot's career.

"They said, 'I'm not coming back,' and they didn't," she said.

"They got to sit in jail for a little while," Kirckof responded.

Both Bot and Kirckof stressed that when potential jurors first receive their questionnaire, they can let the court know of planned vacations, medical issues, or other events that might necessitate being assigned to trials at certain times.

"We understand that everyone has a unique situation, whether it is their employment or financial situation, and we try to work with them," Bot said.

To ease that financial burden, jurors who are assigned to trial receive a modest stipend - $10 per day and 28 cents per mile. Some employers will pay an employee their regular rate of pay, minus the amount received by the court.

While it is up to each individual employer regarding financial compensation, they are required to let their employees miss work without disciplinary action.

To some, it doesn't seem fair, but because jury selection is random, some people are never selected, while others have been assigned to duty more than once. But once you have completed a term, you cannot be summoned again for four years.

"Look at it as an experience, an educational experience," Kirckof concluded. "You might find it very interesting to find out what the judicial system is all about."

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