A Maryland judge sentenced a breastfeeding mother to a night in jail or a $150 fine, after she asked to postpone her jury duty.
Elizabeth Jett's baby boy Henry was less than 12 weeks old when she was called for jury duty. "I think it’s a case of priorities. Taking care of your children should be your first priority. Jury duty can always come later," Jett said.
Jett asked to postpone and serve during the Summer, when Henry would be older and her mother, a full-time teacher, could take care of him and his five-year-old brother.
The Carroll County judge said Jett was in contempt of court, which Jett thought was unbelievable. "I was just shocked. I couldn’t even put it into words," she said.
Legislation that would allow nursing mothers with children under the age of two to be excused from jury duty was introduced for the second time. When the plan was proposed in 2004, many lawmakers shot it down.
Brian Frosh, Chair for the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the law would cause more people to try to postpone their duties, "If you start saying, we’re gonna excuse people for breastfeeding, you’ve gotta say ok to kidney dialysis, chemotherapy and all the other maladies that afflict the human condition." [emphasis added]
Frosh said the law already gives judges broad discretion to excuse residents from jury duty, "So what we want is for judges to use their discretion liberally."
I'd note here that had this mother been working, she would have been guaranteed time off from work under the Family Medical Leave Act, and that she simply asked to postpone her service, not be excused from it. It's not clear to me whether pumping would have been an option, but even that would have required the agreement of the judge, since juries are kept together and breaks are at the discretion of the judge. And of course not all babies take bottles, and not all women have success with pumping.
When I served on a jury a few months ago, the judge in the case did use her discretion liberally. She asked each member of the jury pool if there was any reason why serving on the jury would present a significant hardship. She cited as examples the need to care for children or elderly relatives, medical procedures, and even stated that since we live in an area with lots of colleges students, she would excuse any student who would miss class.
So, there are judges who understand this particular need of the "human condition," and are happy to accommodate it. But clearly there are others who don't. I appreciate the argument that specifically naming conditions can make things complicated. But there also appear to be judges who don't have an adequate understanding of this issue to use their discretion in a manner most of us would find appropriate. That's why 12 states (California, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia) have laws that accommodate nursing mothers called for jury duty.
As for the argument that these laws create opportunities for more people - such as those undergoing chemotherapy or kidney dialysis - to postpone their service, isn't that what we would all want?