A Citizen's Role in the Courts

Citizen participation in the judicial system can take many forms. As a juror, witness, or crime victim, you have certain responsibilities to the court. Understanding your role can help ease any apprehension and lead to a constructive experience.

Jury duty is a common obligation of citizens. When a notice arrives in the mail, read the instructions carefully and check the dates. The court expects every citizen to honor a jury duty summons and appear on the scheduled day. If you do have a scheduling conflict, contact the clerk and ask if the court will postpone your jury duty or excuse you. However, there is no guarantee that you will be excused from duty whatever the reason.

Participation in jury duty usually lasts a week, but that does not guarantee you will be selected to serve on a jury. If you are selected, listen carefully and be alert to everything that occurs during the trial. Do not discuss the case with anyone, including fellow jurors, and avoid any newspapers or newscasts that might influence you.

When the jury begins to deliberate the verdict, base your decision only on the evidence presented in court. Do not consider testimony or evidence declared inadmissible. Keep an open mind until you have reviewed all the evidence. Jurors receive a small fee for their time.

As a witness, you need to review the case and your testimony prior to your court appearance. Try to visualize the incident in an attempt to remember any additional details that may prove helpful.

During your testimony, listen to the questions carefully and think before answering. Remember you are under oath and must tell the truth. The court only wants the truth and facts in the case, so avoid exaggeration or opinions.

Remain calm and courteous, even if an attorney aggressively cross-examines you, and speak loudly and clearly. Such an attitude will lend credibility to you and your testimony.

If you are ever the unfortunate victim of a crime, call the police immediately and report it. If you decide to press charges, the police will ask you to put the complaint in writing. In describing the incident, try to answer the basic questions of who, what, when, and where. If the prosecutor finds probable cause to pursue the case, you will be summoned to testify. Failure to appear in court is a violation of the subpoena and could result in a fine.

America's judicial system depends on the participation of its citizens. When called to serve, take the responsibility seriously.