In 2008, Maryland mother Elizabeth Jett was called for jury duty. At the time she was breastfeeding her baby boy, Henry, who was less than 12 weeks old.
Jett asked the judge to postpone her service until the summer because she was breastfeeding and was her children’s sole caretaker. She asked for a postponement until the summer, when her mother, a teacher, could take care of her children.
That request was denied, and her date of summons passed. Jett was then told to report to the court, where she was held in contempt and sentenced to a night in jail or a fine. “I was just shocked,” Jett told a newspaper. “I couldn’t even put it into words.”
A bill that would have allowed nursing mothers to postpone (not cancel) their jury duty service had failed a few years prior to this incident. In defense of it’s demise, Brian Frosh, Chair for the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said “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.”
This sounds like a completely absurd statement – of course people undergoing chemotherapy should not be compelled to serve on a jury – but I assume that what this man was arguing was that the law shouldn’t need to delineate each and every health condition justifying an excusal or postponement. That would make for a cluttered code. And judges can already exercise their discretion to excuse people in these situations.
Fair enough. But since breastfeeding is relatively recent in resurgence, and since judges, who tend to be male and may have come of age when breastfeeding was less common, may be unfamiliar with the needs of nursing moms, treatment of breastfeeding moms can be quite uneven. Every judge knows that someone undergoing chemo would likely experience hardship if compelled to serve; not every judge knows that a breastfeeding mother may experience hardship, too.
In contrast to Jett’s experience, there are many stories of mothers having no trouble at all postponing or being excused from service while breastfeeding. You may have one of them.
I served on a few years ago, in a state with no law regarding breastfeeding mothers. The judge in the case used her discretion quite extensively. 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. Another time when I was called in for jury duty, a diabetic man asked during screening whether he would be allowed breaks to eat, check his blood sugar, and take insulin. Of course, said the judge.
But there has been enough concern over court’s treatment of breastfeeding mothers that, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, thirteen states and Puerto Rico have laws addressing breastfeeding and jury duty. These states are California, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia. They vary from excusing mothers to allowing for postponements. Other states may provide exemptions through the court rules or regulations. Some states have more broad excusal provisions for caretakers of young children.
If you don’t live in one of those states, your experience depends on the individual judge involved.
As Jake Marcus, a lawyer with expertise in law relating to breastfeeding mothers, points out, “I live in Pennsylvania where state law offers no excuse or exemption from jury duty for breastfeeding or caretaking for a family member. However, in my county I was excused each of the 4 times I was called while I was breastfeeding. One county over women have been threatened with contempt citations for even asking for postponing due to either breastfeeding or being a primary caretaker.”
What can you do if you’re breastfeeding and are called to jury duty? La Leche League recommends:
1) See if your state has a law allowing you to postpone or be excused from jury duty. If so, follow the state’s directions to exercise your right.
2) If there is no exemption, write a polite letter requesting a postponement or excuse. Address it to the person in charge of jury service, or the head judge of the court. If possible, include a note from your child’s doctor stating that he or she is exclusively breastfed. The letter should state that the mother is willing to do jury duty at a future time.
3) Note that in states with no law on this topic, the court’s decision may depend upon factors such as the age of the child, and whether the mother is already employed outside the home.
4) If you must serve while breastfeeding, ask for time and a clean, private place to pump.
Ideally, judges would recognize that for a breastfeeding mother and child, jury duty may present a hardship comparable to any other medical or caretaking one, and use their discretion accordingly. Mothers, for our part, should recognize that jury duty is a civic responsibility and be prepared to serve at a time when it would not cause an undue hardship. But until judges (who remain predominately male) recognize the hardship that service can represent for nursing mothers, state laws allowing mothers to postpone service or make appropriate accommodations appear to still be necessary.
Were you called for jury duty while breastfeeding? Did you ask for a postponement because of it? What did the judge say?