How Jurors Are Chosen in the U.S. Court System

There are few ways to stay out of the jury pool

Jury Poll
Most jury pools are drafted using voter-registration lists, meaning if you aren't eligible to vote, you won't have to serve on a jury.

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If you're trying to get out of jury duty at the federal or state levels, your best chance of doing so is by never registering to vote or canceling your current voter registration. As important as the right to vote is, some Americans opt out of voting thinking that it will help them avoid being called for jury duty.

However, keeping your name off the voter rolls does not guarantee you won't be randomly chosen for jury duty. That's because many state federal court districts also pull prospective jurors from lists of licensed drivers and tax records to supplement their stable of potential jurors from voter lists. So that means you could be called for federal jury duty in some federal court districts if you've got a driver's license.

Still, voter rolls remain the primary source of prospective jurors. And as long as they remain so, your best chance of avoiding jury duty at the state or federal is to stay off the list of voters in your county and federal court district. Other ways to keep off the list of prospective jurors include getting a job as a police officer or firefighter or running for elected office in your town or state. Complaining about having to work won't get you off the list.

How Prospective Jurors Are Chosen

Potential jurors are chosen for federal court from "a jury pool generated by random selection of citizens' names from lists of registered voters," the federal court system explains. It also may use lists of registered drivers.

"Each judicial district must have a formal written plan for the selection of jurors, which provides for random selection from a fair cross-section of the community in the district, and which prohibits discrimination in the selection process. Voter records—either voter registration lists or lists of actual voters—are the required source of names for federal court juries," according to the federal court system. 

So if you're not registered to vote, you're safe from jury duty, right? Wrong.

Why You Still Might Be Picked for Jury Duty

According to the Federal Judicial Center, Congress requires that district courts create a plan for selecting jurors. Usually, this involves having the clerk of court randomly draw names from the list of registered voters in the district but sometimes from other sources, such as the list of licensed drivers.

Only in Ohio and Wyoming do state courts use only the list of registered voters to build jury pools, not drivers lists or tax rolls. That means you can avoid jury duty in county and state court in those two states by simply staying out of the voting booth. Everywhere else? You're likely to end up in a jury pool at some point in your life if you drive a car or pay taxes.

The Issue of Fairness

Critics say that drawing prospective jurors from voter-registration lists is wrong argue because it discourages people from entering the political process. Some academics argue that the connection between voter registration and jury duty represents an unconstitutional poll tax.

A 2012 research study by Alexander Preller of Columbia University found that 41 states primarily use voter registration to build prospective jury panels. Five others primarily use their department of motor vehicle records and four others do not have mandatory lists at all. 

"Jury duty is a burden, but not one which a concerned citizenry should gladly bear. However, jury services should not be allowed to parasitically burden other civil rights," Preller wrote. "The economic burdens of jury duty do not pose constitutional problems so long as they remain separate from voting; the problem is the link itself."

Such an argument claims the current mechanism for choosing jurors forces many Americans to abandon their most precious civil right to carry out a civic obligation. But other experts believe the wider and more racially and economically diverse the jury pool, the fairer the justice system is. "The whole point is for the master jury list to be as inclusive as possible," Greg Hurley, a lawyer and senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts, told the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper.

Who's Exempt From Jury Duty

There are some people who will never have to report for federal jury duty, regardless of whether they are registered to vote. The federal Jury Act, which requires the random selection of citizens' names from voters lists, states that members of the military serving in active duty, police officers, professional and volunteer firefighters and "public officers" such as elected officials at the local, state and federal levels do not have to report for jury duty.

Some courts also exempt the elderly and people who have served on a jury in the previous two years. If you've got another reason you think jury duty represents an undue hardship or extreme inconvenience, the courts might consider granting you a temporary deferral, but these are determined on a case-by-case basis.

Other people who don't have to serve on a jury are:

  • Noncitizens who have lived in their judicial district for less than a year;
  • People who cannot speak English or read, write or understand English with a degree of proficiency "satisfactorily complete the juror qualification form";
  • The mentally ill or physically infirm;
  • People charged with a felony crime that is punishable by more than a year in prison;
  • Those who have been convicted of a felony and have not been granted a pardon, which restores their civil rights;
  • Minors.
View Article Sources
  1. The American Trial Jury: Current Issues and Controversies. socialstudies.org

  2. The Federal Court System in the United States. Office of Judges Programs, Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, 2000.

  3. FAQs: Juror Information.” United States Courts, USCourts.gov.

  4. George, Jody, Golash, Deirdre, and Wheeler, Russell. "Handbook on Jury Use in the Federal District Courts." Federal Justice Center, 1989.  

  5. Curnutte, Mark. “Not Registered to Vote? You Won't Be a Juror.” The Enquirer, Cincinnati, 30 Oct. 2016.

  6. Preller, Alexander E. "Jury Duty Is a Poll Tax: The Case for Severing the Link between Voter Registration and Jury Service." Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, vol. 46, no. 1, 2012-2013.

  7. Curnutte, Mark. “Not Registered to Vote? You Won't Be a Juror.” The Enquirer, Cincinnati, 30 Oct. 2016.

  8. Juror Qualifications.” United States Courts, USCourts.gov.