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Political celebs, reporting for (jury) duty

For most law-abiding citizens, the groan-worthy chore of jury service is usually their closest brush with the American legal system.

Not so for two of D.C.’s top politicos, who have been spotted in the last week reporting for jury duty.

Last week, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan appeared for duty at a superior court in Washington D.C.  And today, Vice President (and former Senate Judiciary Commitee chairman) Joe Biden showed up in his home state of Delaware to answer his summons.

In a statement, the Vice President’s office described Biden’s afternoon in court as service “in his capacity as a private citizen.” He was dismissed Monday without being called to serve on a jury. (Kagan was also dismissed after a few hours.)  

"I don't consider myself different than any other person," Biden said. "This is important ... It is an honor to be a part of the system.”

So, could Biden have been chosen to serve on a jury?

Technically, it was possible.

There’s no specific exemption that prevents celebrities – political or otherwise – from having to show up for jury duty or serve during a trial, although they are usually granted “hardship” exceptions if they request them. But many of Washington’s biggest luminaries have been called to serve – and there have been a handful of high-profile politicians who have been selected -- with some even being elected to lead their peers as jury foremen.

“It rarely happens, but it does happen,” says Dr. Jeffrey Frederick, the director of Jury Research Services at the National Legal Research Group and the author of “Mastering Voir Dire and Jury Selection.”

During the process of “voir dire” – or the questioning of potential jurors - attorneys in a case have the option of dismissing a certain number of potential jurors with no questions asked as long as they are not rejecting individuals on a discriminatory basis. Lawyers can also make the case to a judge that a potential juror’s background or beliefs make him or her unable to judge the case fairly.

But, Frederick says, the argument that a jury shouldn’t contain a legal expert -- like Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, or Kagan,  a former Solicitor General and a Supreme Court Justice – probably wouldn’t fly.

“Just knowing the law doesn’t mean that you can’t serve,” he said.

Case in point:  Former county prosecutor and onetime Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry got the green light to sit on a jury for a 2005 Massachusetts case involving injury claims resulting from a car accident.  Kerry, who was elected foreman, said at the time that he was “a little surprised” that attorneys in the case didn’t object to his placement on the jury but that he “enjoyed” the experience.

Similarly, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s status as New York City’s top official and a former federal prosecutor did not prevent him from serving as the jury foreman on a personal injury case in 1999.

A sitting president has not served on a jury in the modern era, but several recent commanders-in-chief have received a summons in the mail. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton were all summoned for jury duty but later let off the hook by the courts. (Clinton said that he would be willing to serve on a 2003 case involving a gang shooting, but he was dismissed by the judge.)  

Biden, who last served jury duty in 2000, said today that he’d like to see the current president follow his lead.

“I hope the president serves in Chicago if he is called,” Biden said.

But if he delivered the same advice to Obama last year, it went unheeded.  Almost exactly a year ago today, Obama was granted a request to be excused from reporting for duty at a county courthouse in a Chicago suburb.

His excuse? Obama was – as he is today - preparing for his first State of the Union address.