Jury duty, a psychiatric perspective

I just finished a day of jury service in criminal court, and have some thoughts about the whole process.  Some relate to me as a psychiatrist, some are more generic.  I’ll start by admitting I’ve never served as a juror in an actual trial.  Doing so would interest me, and I do appreciate the role of juries in our legal system, yet the hassle of missing work and other obligations outweighs these factors in my mind.  Thus, I’m happy I’ve escaped so far.  Years ago I wrote to be excused whenever I received a jury summons.  I argued that my patients needed me more than the legal system did.  That argument worked once or twice in the distant past:  I was excused for the year without having to appear at all.  However, the last couple of times I tried it my request was denied.  I was instructed to show up like everyone else.  So I don’t fight it anymore, although I still feel the argument has some merit.

Do psychiatrists, and possibly other mental health professionals, have a valid claim that their jury service risks hurting their patients?   As described here, jury duty presents a unique uncertainty for psychiatrists and patients, one that isn’t the same as a planned vacation or even a sudden illness.  (The issue is also discussed toward the end of this 1996 article in the New York Times.)

In my jurisdiction, the recipient of a jury summons is “at risk” for a week, and must call each evening to learn whether to appear the next morning.  Canceling patients for this entire week would be incredibly wasteful, resulting in many treatment disruptions and the forfeiture of a week’s income, usually for no good reason.  The alternative is to warn patients in advance that they may be canceled the evening before their appointments — which is less advance notice of cancellation than a psychiatrist typically expects of his or her patients.  Some patients react poorly to last-minute cancellations, some cannot reschedule (or the psychiatrist has no other times to offer); as a worst case scenario this may constitute a “last straw” that ends a treatment.  Even when bad outcomes are avoided, it adds a wrinkle to the treatment of all affected patients.

When I warned my patients that I might be away for one or more days last week, several expressed surprise that I would receive a summons at all.  Realistically, there’s no reason I wouldn’t.  Potential jurors are selected randomly from voter and DMV lists; it’s a pretty safe bet that one’s psychiatrist is on such lists.  Perhaps this is another instance of patients having difficulty imagining their psychiatrist living a normal life outside the office.  In other words, it’s a transference phenomenon.

Psychiatrists are rarely kept on juries.  The procedure for selecting a jury for a given trial is called the voir dire.  Prospective jurors state their names, occupations, and other key facts.  The attorneys then ask questions to elicit potential bias that would be unfavorable to their side.  The attorneys use peremptory challenges or challenges for cause to excuse problematic jurors.  Each time I’ve made it to the voir dire, I’ve been excused by peremptory challenge, which means no reason was given.  Attorneys prefer not to have “experts” on juries, i.e., legal experts such as other attorneys or police officers, or mental health experts who, they fear, may “see through” their arguments, or come to our own conclusions regarding the thoughts and motivations of the involved parties.  In any event, it’s frustrating to cancel or reschedule a day of patients, and languish at the courthouse for most of the day, when I’m virtually certain never to serve on a jury.

While I was languishing, I contented myself by observing the process and the people involved.  Like mass transit and some public events, jury service offers a cross-sectional look at one’s neighbors.  Adults of all ages, levels of education, and political views answer the call.  A 20 year old sits next to a 70 year old, a professor next to a factory worker.  Everyone gets along, mainly by benign indifference — and all of us are clearly subordinate to the people who work there: the bailiffs, the attorneys, and of course the judges.

A few potential jurors stand out by revealing their hatred of jury service.  Several have interesting stories or perspectives to relate in the voir dire.  A young woman is wary of police since her partner runs a medical marijuana dispensary.  A young man feels gun laws are too restrictive.  There were a surprising number of tech-workers — maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

The “presumption of innocence” in a criminal trial (i.e., innocent until proven guilty) seemed lost on many jurors; judges and attorneys must find it tedious to repeat over and over that a criminal defendant need not offer evidence or argument of any type to be acquitted.  But the main thing I found fascinating was how jurors in the voir dire defend their capacity to be unbiased and objective, even after they express overtly biased views, and even when they presumably would prefer to be excused from service.  Bias sounds like a weakness, a character flaw.  Perhaps for this reason many jurors declare themselves neutral and completely open-minded when that cannot possibly be the case.  I wonder to what degree the whole institution of trial by jury relies on pride — the pride of individual jurors in their own objectivity, and a social pride we feel in the “wisdom of the common man,” despite clear evidence that basic legal tenets, like presumption of innocence, are often unappreciated.

I would prefer to avoid too much pride myself.  Psychiatric work is not the easiest kind to set aside for the obligations of jury duty, but I doubt it’s the hardest either.  I don’t plan to ask for special exemptions in the future.  All the same, I don’t mind if attorneys continue to believe we can see through their arguments, and read the minds of their clients.  A little transference can be a good thing.

Image: “Justice,” Edwin Austin Abbey (American, 1852 – 1911)

2 comments to Jury duty, a psychiatric perspective

  • Anonymous

    How ironic that doctors have no problem taking month long vacations with little regards to their patients, but jury duty?

    • I imagine you have some experience with doctors who “take month long vacations with little regards to their patients.” If so, you have my sympathy.

      Personally, the longest vacation of my career was two weeks, and that’s a rarity… it’s usually one, about twice a year. I either cover myself, ie., check for and return calls remotely, or have another psychiatrist cover for me. Patients know about my vacations in advance, and I ask afterwards how it affected them — and I listen in psychotherapy for subtle or unconscious reactions. I believe I give my patients every possible regard, short of denying myself any breaks.

      Meanwhile, this 6 year old post reflects the evolution in my thinking about jury duty. I still don’t like having to warn patients I may be called away, nor to cancel their appointments the evening before when I am. As with vacations, I think this reflects regard for my patients. I see no irony in it.

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