Maybe this scenario sounds familiar to you. You’ve been summoned for jury duty — like two or three times in the past few years. But your, say, spouse, sibling, coworker? Not a single summons. This happened to Pepperell resident Carrie Powanda-Croft, who reached out to the Curiosity Desk to ask why.
For answers, I went straight to the source: Pamela J. Wood, Jury Commissioner for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Wood and her 30-person team are responsible for keeping the state’s court system well-stocked with qualified, potential jurors. So, how do they pick ‘em?
"It is done randomly by computer," said Wood. "We’re not over here drawing names out of a hat or deciding who we think would be a good juror on a particular case."
This randomized process of selection, executed by a software program called Jury+, begins with something called “the master juror list.” And, so, where does Wood's office get that list?
"Massachusetts is the only state in the nation that has a mandatory municipal census," explained Wood.
Each year, all 351 Bay State cities and towns submit their census results to the Office of The Jury Commissioner. So, while many states, which use — say — voter rolls or driver records to identify potential jurors, Massachusetts' jury pool is determined by these annual censuses. As such, the list tends to include a broader swath of the population. We also allow students to serve, which many states don’t.
"We are pretty much believed to have the best list in the country as a result," said Wood.
Each year, the master juror list is divvied up into 14 smaller lists, one for each of the state's 14 counties, called "prospective juror lists." All told, some 600,000-700,000 names get plucked from these prospective juror lists each year — right around 10 percent of the population — and receive a summons.
Crucially, the law dictates that when names are drawn, they be drawn at random. This means everyone has an equal chance of being selected, every time a drawing is done.
"We compare it to flipping a coin," said Wood. "If you flipped a coin three or four times in a row and got heads every time, you might think it’s unusual, but you’d understand it was random and it wasn’t worth calling the Guinness book of world records."
In essence, you have that same 10 percent chance of receiving a summons each year, no matter when you last received one — or who you are. Even, say, if you are the jury commissioner.
"I have been summoned," said Wood. "I was impaneled on an OUI case. In Massachusetts there are no exemptions."
While there are no exemptions, there are 10 reasons for disqualification.
"Things like you’re not a citizen, you don’t live in the county we summoned you in, you can’t speak and understand English, you have a medical reason that your doctor says you can’t serve," explained Wood.
Of those summoned, only about 200,000 end up actually appearing in court each year, of which a small percentage end up getting impaneled on a jury.
"People think it’s going to be bad and they wanna get out of it," said Wood. "Then once they do it, almost without exception, particularly if they are impaneled on a jury, they really are glad they did. And, in fact, we get a large number of people that say, ‘I wanna do it again.’"
But, the law also states that if you’ve served on a jury, you are disqualified from doing so again for 3 years. Of course, you could still be called for federal jury duty. And if Wood is to be believed, it sounds like that might be like winning the lottery — twice.
Our thanks to Carrie Powanda-Croft for her question that led to today’s story. What’s yours? Email us at CuriosityDesk@wgbh.org. Who knows? We might just look into it for you.