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Being (sigh) a good citizen

So The Legal Genealogist is off this morning — at the obscenely early hour of oh-dark-thirty — to perform her civic duty.

In my case, that’s going to consist of sitting around for hours in a cold, drafty room on barely-cushioned chairs, for the privilege of being excused from every jury on which I might possibly be called to sit.

The JuryThe chances that I’d actually be chosen as a juror in any case that might be tried in the county where I live — civil or criminal — are laughably remote.

You see, I have a law degree. I used to work first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. I now work part-time for the company that publishes the books relied on daily by lawyers and judges throughout New Jersey. I’m officially retired from teaching at the state’s premier (and state-funded) law school.

And that doesn’t even consider the fact that I tend to be … um … a smart aleck.

Yeah, I’m just exactly the person that every lawyer wants on his or her jury. R-i-g-h-t…1

But I’m here. Sitting in that cold, drafty room on a barely-cushioned chair, because I have to be.

The law says so.

Like every other juror ever summoned, I have to show up.

And the law has said that for a very long time.

Since I’m headed off to New York later this week for Genealogy in Bloom, this Saturday’s seminar of the Rochester Genealogical Society, I decided to take a look at colonial New York law.

And — yup — you had to show up as a juror back then too.

As a matter of fact, if you didn’t show up, the colonial government would be downright annoyed. The first English governor of the New York colony sent an advisory out to local officials: “That Whosoever shall be nominated to serve in a Jury with out Just Cause showen shall refuse it he shall forfeit twenty shillings towards the defraying publique Charge which is to be Levied by the Constable.”2


When New York became a state, its early laws assessed a fine of not more than five pounds to be assessed against any juror who didn’t show up — and, what’s more, if fines were imposed, the court was to “cause public proclamation of such fines to be made by the crier of the court.”3

Ouch again.

By 1801, the fine for not showing up, as either a grand or trial juror, was up to as much as $25,4 and by the 20th century it was not less than $10 nor more than $25 every day.5

As genealogists, we love any record of our ancestors being called for jury duty. If they were called, it should be in any surviving records of that court. If they actually served on a jury, it’ll be in those records. And if they didn’t show up, the assessment of the fine — and any later explanation they offered to try to get excused from the fine — should be in those records too.

As for me, well… I live across the river in New Jersey.

New Jerseyans who don’t show up for jury duty “shall be liable for a fine not to exceed $500, payable to the county in which the person was summoned, or may be punished for contempt of court.”6


Which explains why I’m here, sitting in that cold, drafty room on a barely-cushioned chair.


One way or the other, we all pay the price of citizenship…


Image: “The Jury,” 1861, by John Morgan, via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. I’ve been known to bet with other jurors as to who would be excused first and by which side. One time, I called three of the first four excuses correctly, and my own — by the prosecutor in the case — was number one.
  2. The Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution (Albany : James B. Lyon, State Printer, 1894), I: 73; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
  3. An Act to punish delinquent jurors…, Chapter 20 in Laws of the State of New York… 1785-1788 (Albany: Weed Parsons & Co., 1886), 2: 47; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
  4. §18, “An ACT for regulating Trials of Issues, and for returning able and sufficient Jurors,” 31 March 1801, in Laws of the State of New York (Albany: Charles & Geo. Webster, 1802), I: 381; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
  5. §552, New York Judiciary Law, in McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York (Northport, NY : Edw. Thompson Co., 1917), 29: 290; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
  6. N.J.S. 2B: 20-14b.
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