Monday, September 27, 2010

Federal Grand Jury Service: What Those 18 Months Are Like

A question posted by a reader of the blog Prince of Petworth wondered if it's common for District residents to get called for Federal grand jury service for 18 months. The answer is yes. Federal grand jury service is different from being a juror in DC Superior Court, which lasts one day or one trial. It's different from being called as a grand juror in the District of Columbia, which lasts for 25 days. And it's even different from being called as a federal Petit (Trial) juror, which lasts two and a half weeks.  As a federal Petit juror you check in every night by phone to see if you're wanted the next day.

Federal Grand Jury is the mother of all jury duties and lasts 18 months.  Here's a summary of what you can expect do to if you're called as a Federal grand juror: "A grand jury...normally consists of 16 to 23 members. The United States attorney, the prosecutor in federal criminal cases, presents evidence to the grand jury for them to determine whether there is 'probable cause' to believe that an individual has committed a crime and should be put on trial."

Having served on a DC jury recently does not get you excused from Federal jury service, and vice versa.

Eighteen months. Sounds like a long time, because it is. Here are some observations from Prince of Petworth's blog of what you can expect if you're called to be on a Federal grand jury:

I have a co-worker who was summoned for GJ in the district a few years ago. She was also told it would be 3 days a week for 18 months and it ended up being far less than that.


I served on federal grand jury in DC for 12 months (I was an alternate called up after someone moved) and they ended up also extending us for an additional 6 months. (18 months for me, 24 months for others!) just over 2 years ago.


You can take vacations, you can miss if you are sick, etc. You just need to give them advance warning (if you’re sick you have to call the foreman). Also, some days you’ll report, and some days you won’t (you have to call in the night before). Some days you’ll report for 2 hours, others the entire day. Between Thanksgiving and New Years we barely reported. It sucked for a while but we had some amazing high profile cases, so it wasn’t too bad. You’ll also have over 250+ cases presented to you, so it keeps it interesting.

The best advice I can give you: 1) don’t try to get out of it. Of the 26 people selected almost all of them (80%) tried to get off, perhaps karma, but still just ride it out. 2) don’t be foreman, too much responsibility (and you have to be in front where the occasionally bring people in still shackled up!) 3) ask a lot of questions if you serve. It's your chance to be judge!

Finally, don’t think you are off the hook if you don’t get selected the first round. I was actually called up an alternate after I thought I was in the clear. You can breathe easy once those 18 months have passed, until then you’re on their list!


(1) It’s federal grand jury service, and 18 months is the standard empanelment. If you want the bad news, it is that your service actually may be extended by the court beyond those 18 months.

(2) You’re not likely to have to go every time it’s scheduled; that’s just the maximum. It depends on whether the prosecutors need the grand jury. You will have full days of testimony and evidence, and you will have other days that likely get canceled due to lack of need.

(3) Even then, it’s typical that you can miss a few days — you work this out with the grand jury foreman ahead of time, let him know you won’t be there. The grand jury will have 23 members, and only 16 of them need to be there for it to do business. You can take vacations or have can’t-miss weeks at work; you just can’t be the person who never shows up.

(4) This is the way the federal criminal justice system works and how it has worked for years. If you want a jury of your peers — and as a citizen, you probably do — then part of that means that people with busy jobs on an upward career trajectory have the same civic duty as minimum wage worker or a retired machinist.


A few years back I was selected for the very same Federal Grand Jury duty and let me tell you it was hell! Not only did I have to go two days a week for 18 months, I had to hear about some of the most horrific cases imaginable, hundreds of them. It was stressful to hear about murderers, pedophiles and and the like. My mental health seriously deteriorated. On the flip side, I’m now an expert in federal criminal law and I sort of miss knowing what’s going down in DC.


I am a DC resident and served on a federal grand jury a few years ago. Yes, it is a major life change. Fortunately my company was incredibly supportive while I served. In fact, my bosses thought it was pretty cool. Two set days a week, Tues/Thurs or Wed/Fri. Keep in mind that it is nothing like regular trial jury duty, and you aren’t in a courtroom.

The good news is that this being DC, you will be hearing cases of national and international import. Front-page, above-the-fold, top-of-the-news, book-and-movie stuff. You get to participate and personally question the witnesses (not to mention the investigators and the prosecutors.) I am about as far from the law as you can get—I’m in the creative/design field—but I found it incredibly fascinating, and I’m really glad I had the opportunity to do it.

The bad news? Your 18-month term is almost 100% guaranteed to be extended to two years. Go ahead and assume that it will and plan accordingly. Think seriously about volunteering to be the foreperson or deputy foreperson, if for no other reason than that they coordinate jurors’ vacations and time away. You can’t abuse the privilege, but if you are having a busy week at work and get to the jury session and there are enough jurors present to have a quorum—16 out of 23 if I recall—you can ask the foreperson to excuse you for the day and you can go to work instead. On many days you’ll be done by noon, and on many days you won’t go in at all. Also, a couple of folks on my jury served for a few months, then went to the judge and asked to be replaced due to work situations, and their requests were granted. Another juror moved to Arlington after a few months of serving, thus disqualifying himself! (Getting out of service at the start, when the judge first selects you, is very difficult. “I have a job/life” won’t do it.)

Lastly, after serving for two years, I recently got summoned to serve again. Now that was a bit rich. I mean, come on, four years? The second time around, I got out of it, though technically, prior service does not excuse you.

PS: The cafeteria in the federal courthouse is decent, and has a postcard-perfect view of the Capitol.


  1. As an attorney in DC, I have always wanted to have the opportunity to serve on a jury, but never have. I've been called many times, but never for grand jury. Incidentally, the photo is of the DC Court of Appeals, at which I happened to have served as a clerk, but at which no one ever serves jury duty. Juries are for trial courts, not appellate courts.

  2. Hmm maybe it is time for DC residents to start questioning being on any US / Federal juries. We do not have the right of all other US Citizens in that we do not have voting representation in the House nor the Senate. Maybe it is time we start talking on this in the US courts as we are asked to serve

  3. First thing to know is that it is not 18 months, it is 95% of the time 36 months.

    This system is abused by prosecutors who put all cases in front of special grand juries, not just long term cases, because it is easier.

    As a foreperson on a Special, I note that the regulars almost never sit, for any reason, and they have specials because it is easier for the system.

    This means that the only people that end up on after 36 months are government employees, the unemployed and the retired. Bot a fair representation of ones peers.