This article was originally published in Escapees magazine in January/February 2020 and has been updated to reflect more recent changes.
When you receive your mail from Escapees, you could be in Alaska about to travel deep into the wilderness. Then you see it. The black-on-white folded jury summons postcard. In red small print, you’ll see the words: This is a court order to appear in court at the date and time specified. What should you do when, as a full-time RVer, you get jury duty?
If you are domiciled in Livingston, Texas, the order will say that your jury coordinator is Bobbye J. Richards, Polk County’s district clerk. Her phone number is 936-327-6814. Unfolding the postcard, you read that there are exemptions from jury duty. For example: if you are over 70, have legal custody of a child under 12 and service on a jury would cause you to have to leave the child without supervision, you are a student in high school or higher education, you are a legislative officer, primary caretaker of someone unable to take care of themselves, or you are a member of the military and are on active duty.
In fact, you are not any of these, but instead you are an Escapee currently about to enter the Alaskan Wilderness and not planning to return to Texas for quite some time, what can you do?
The easy answer in Livingston, Texas, and Box Elder, South Dakota, or Bushnell, Florida, the three domicile locations for Escapees members, is to call and let them know ahead of time that you are currently unavailable to serve. In Livingston, Texas, you may immediately be asked if you are with Escapees. If so, you will be asked to let the court know when you will be back in the area so that you can then serve on a jury panel. In Bushnell, Florida, you may be told that next time you are summoned, you must appear, that you are allowed one such absence. In Box Elder, South Dakota, I believe they also require you to serve the second time you are summoned after receiving a pass that first time.
History of Jury Service in the United States
The right to a jury trial in the United States was established by the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments to the United States Constitution for all criminal matters and most civil matters. In contrast, England, Scotland, Wales and Canada, have a much less liberal standard for trials by jury. A trial by jury, in England was considered a “privilege” not a “right.” In fact, outside the United States, the civil jury “has all but disappeared.” Estimates are that 80 percent of all jury trials worldwide take place in the United States.” (“The Evolution of the American Jury,” by Hans and Vidmar, excerpt from Judging the Jury.).
The Seminal Case – The Trial of John Peter Zenger
Why is this considered such a fundamental right in the United States? Those who settled in the United States from England experienced the abuse of power by those in power. In particular, on August 5, 1735, a jury of 12 men delivered a verdict for John Peter Zenger, against the then-ruling Governor of New York, William Cosby. William Cosby arrived in New York on August 7, 1731, having been appointed by the King of England to assume his post as governor for New York Province. Historians have labeled Cosby a “rogue governor” who was described as “spiteful, greedy, jealous, quick-tempered, dull and haughty.” (See, e.g. Famous Trials, The Trial of John Peter Zenger.)
Trouble began when Governor Cosby chose to fight with the highly respected senior member of the New York Provincial
Council, Rip Van Dam, demanding that this man turn over half his salary to Cosby. The two ended up in a dispute about the amount owed, with Governor Cosby filing suit against Van Dam. Governor Cosby knew he would not win in court before a jury, so he designated the Supreme Court to sit without a jury to hear his case. Van Dam challenged the end-run that the governor was attempting. However, the Supreme Court at which the decision would be decided, was filled with appointees of the governor. Two of the three supreme court justices on the panel voted to allow a non-jury decision. The third justice voted against the governor. Governor Cosby demanded that this justice explain in writing why he ruled against the governor.
The justice wrote a response, but published it in a pamphlet printed by John Peter Zenger. Governor Cosby removed the justice and replaced him with a person more loyal to the governor.
When Governor Cosby removed a popular jurist, this caused the more powerful men in the colony to rebel. They organized the Popular Party that was determined to seriously challenge Governor Cosby’s ability to govern. Governor Cosby hired Francis Harison, later called Cosby’s “flatterer- in-chief” and “hatchetman,” to become censor and effective editor of the only established newspaper in New York, the New York Gazette. Harison used the paper to defend the actions of the governor.
In response, the leaders of the opposition created an independent political newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal. Its goal was “chiefly to expose Cosby and those ridiculous flatteries with which Mr. Harison loads our newspaper, which our governor claims and has the privilege of suffering nothing to be in but what he and Mr. Harison approve of.” Zenger was the publisher as he was only one of two printers in the area. On November 5, 1733, Zenger published the first issue of Weekly Journal that included political news from the colony unfavorable to Cosby. Other issues also concerned the dubious actions of the governor as well as the right to freely publish.
Governor Cosby put up with the attacks for two months before deciding the paper and its publisher must be silenced. In January 1734, the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who had been appointed by Governor Cosby, attempted to bring a claim of “seditious libel” against the paper and its publisher, Zenger, but a grand jury refused to indict Zenger. Then Governor Cosby insisted that the newspapers be “publicly burned.” The grand jury still refused to indict. So, on an “information” instead of an indictment, John Peter Zenger was arrested and held in jail for the next nine months awaiting trial. However, the men behind the journal kept on publishing the paper. Bail was set so high that Zenger could not pay it. He stayed in jail and wrote “Letters from Prison,” all published in the Weekly Journal, thus enhancing his position in the matter.
Finally, a jury trial began in July 1735. Governor Cosby attempted to influence the outcome by having his “flatterer-in-chief” produce a list of potential jurors, all men presumed to be loyal to the governor, including those working for the governor.
However, that was too much even for those so chosen. Finally, 12 jurors were selected. On the basis of the “information,” trial began. Although Zenger’s lawyers were dismissed by yet another action of the governor, Zenger ended up being represented by Andrew Hamilton, a leading lawyer of the time. Attorney Hamilton persuaded the jury that it needed to decide whether his client had violated any libel laws and argued that the libel laws of England should not be the libel laws of the United States. Although he had no law to support his arguments, Attorney Hamilton’s main argument was on every man’s right to a trial by a jury, especially against the tyranny of those in power. Zenger won.
Because of the publicity of the case, as well as the abuse of power by Governor Cosby, the idea of a free and impartial jury for civil and criminal cases was deeply embedded in the United States.
Polk County, Texas Jury Summons
Today, in most cases, you have the right to a jury trial. In Polk County, Texas, for example, there are two district courts and one county court. There are also Justice-of-the-Peace courts. On the federal level, there is the federal district court for the Eastern District of Texas, Lufkin Division. There is also potential service on a grand jury. You may be called to appear on the panel for any of these juries. If called, you will be expected to appear in court on the date and time indicated on the court summons. You will be paid $6 for the first day served and then $40 each day if you are chosen to sit on a jury.
Since Polk County is a relatively small county of only 50,000 or so citizens, you may be called more often than in other counties for the state district courts. Because you have a driver license from this county, or you are registered to vote in the county, you will be on the list. Each year, the clerk receives a new list of potential jurors from the State of Texas. This is called the Master Jury Wheel, and names are then chosen at random from the wheel. The grand jury is a larger jury panel chosen to serve a six-month period. Criminal cases are presented to the grand jury to determine if there is sufficient evidence to indict, thus bringing a potential defendant to trial. This selection process is also now random, so you may be called for the grand jury as well.
If you find yourself summoned but unable to serve, Polk County created a new digital form to streamline responses. Escapees RV Club members who use the club’s mail service to establish domicile are able to note their membership in the digital form.
Box Elder, South Dakota Jury Summons
In Box Elder, South Dakota, you may be similarly called to serve if Box Elder is your domicile. The list of potential jurors is also taken from a combination of voter registrations and driver licenses. Being on the jury panel in South Dakota, you will be paid $40 per day, plus mileage if you live further than 50 miles from the courthouse. Since Box Elder is 15 miles from the Rapid City courthouse, you will not be able to claim the mileage. Since the population of the county is 110,000 and the number of lawsuits going to trial is less than Polk County, Texas, chances are slimmer that you will be called. If you are called, please serve.
Sumter County, Florida Jury Summons
In Sumter County, Florida, the location of Escapees in Bushnell, Florida, the population is 125,000. If you receive a summons, you will be expected to report for jury duty. Although you can call and ask that your service be postponed, I am told that you must report the next time you are called. One full-time RVer told me that he received his second summons to appear while he was in Boston. He attempted to postpone the service but was not allowed to do so. In the end, he flew from Boston to Florida to serve on a jury panel. He was not chosen to serve, but spent $1,000 flying there to appear.
Serving on a jury panel and perhaps being selected to serve on a jury is one of the obligations of calling any given county, in any given state, in the United States, your home. If, on the other hand, you needed to bring a case in the county or had a case brought against you, the right to a trial by jury is your right. From before the time when our United States declared its independence from England and fought hard for that independence, jury trials have been one of the stalwarts of this nation. And, if that’s not reason enough, returning to your place of domicile to serve on a jury panel helps show the world that this is, in fact, the place you intend to call home.
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K. Susie Adams SKP #134068
K. Susie Adams has been a lawyer for over 30 years, spending 15 of those years working as a trial lawyer. She also taught legal writing at the University of Houston Law School. From 2011–2016, she was executive director of Childrenz Haven, the Child Advocacy Center of Polk County, Texas. Susie and her husband, James Frost, reside in Livingston, Texas.