Pastor, Church & Law

Exemption From Jury Duty

§ 3.06

Key point 3-06. Clergy are exempt from jury duty in some states. Even if not exempt, clergy may be excused from jury duty on the basis of several grounds including hardship, prejudice, familiarity with the facts or one of the parties, and prior jury service in a similar case.

One has a right to have a jury decide questions of fact in most civil and criminal cases. This right is guaranteed by the United States Constitution and by most state constitutions. It also is recognized by many state and federal statutes. Associated with the right to trial by jury is the corresponding obligation of jury service. Every citizen has a duty to serve as a juror when called upon to do so, unless specifically exempted or excused.

In some states, ministers are exempted from the duty of jury service. The exemption may be automatic, or it may be available only upon timely application. If the exemption is only available upon the filing of a timely application, a court generally is under no duty to inform a prospective juror of entitlement to an exemption-the burden is upon the prospective juror to affirmatively claim it. Of course, exempted clergy have the right to waive the exemption and have their names placed on the list of eligible jurors.

Some federal courts have adopted rules exempting clergy from jury duty.

The exemption of ministers and various other occupations from the duty of jury service has been explained on the ground that “it is for the good of the community that their regular work should not be interrupted.”51 Rawlins v. Georgia, 201 U.S. 638 (1906) (Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes).

The exemption of ministers from jury duty has been upheld against the claim that such exemptions violate the First Amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of a religion.52 United States v. Butler, 611 F.2d 1066 (11th Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 830 (1980).

In those states in which a minister is not exempted from jury service, a minister often may be excused from service by showing that undue hardship or extreme inconvenience would result, or that the public good would be impaired. Such a decision is entirely within the discretion of the presiding judge. Obviously, a minister who is not exempted from jury service should be excused if there is a funeral to perform, several parishioners are in the hospital and in need of visitation, the church is engaged in the construction of a new facility, or there are urgent counseling needs.

A minister not otherwise exempt from jury service may be excused if properly challenged. A prospective juror may be challenged on the grounds of prejudice, direct interest in the litigation, previous knowledge of the facts, acquaintance with a party to the lawsuit, prior jury service in the same or a related case, or preconceived opinions about the lawsuit.

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