In Sugarland, Texas, a judge without a jury orders deputies to round up 160 citizens off the streets at random to sit in judgment.
In Providence, R.I., only 100 of the 200 potential jurors in the case of a deadly nightclub fire showed up for jury duty.
Here at the mammoth Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, court administrators are forced to send out twice as many jury summonses as necessary in order to draw a big enough jury pool for a busy week at the hall of justice.
The number of people not responding to a jury summons has become so acute that it has prompted judicial groups to investigate. Outdated juror lists, rundown jury rooms that feel like jails, and growing time pressures on Americans are mostly to blame, their research has found. Nationally, there's a 20 percent no-show rate, according to the American Judicature Society. In some cities such as Miami, the rate is as high as 90 percent.
The "no-show rate across the country is staggeringly high," says political scientist Jeffrey Abramson, author of "We the Jury: The jury system and the ideal democracy."
Whatever the excuse, a high no-show rate, critics say, causes deep fissures in the bedrock of the republic mostly because a jury pool winds up being unrepresentative of the community. Some people end up thinking that jury duty is optional because courts can't take the time away from conducting trials to follow up with all those who are absent and charge them with contempt of court.
But other courts, including Cobb County, Ga., are taking an active role to solve the problem. "We don't put up with [no-shows]. They either show up or the sheriff goes out and gets them," says Skip Chesshire, the court administrator in Cobb County.
If there are too many no-shows, "defense attorneys can ... persuasively argue that you don't have a true cross section of your community represented in the jury box," he says.