Finding Jurors Can Be a Trial
Many states now use a 1-day/1-trial system to ease jury service
A JURY commissioner is supposed to facilitate trials, not start them. But Frank Davis, the Massachusetts official who summons jurors for the state's courts, sued the city of Boston this year for what he claimed was the city's failure to provide an adequate list of eligible residents.
After a hearing, the city agreed to canvass households in 92 precincts to broaden its list.
A few years ago, two trial judges in Colorado and Utah found themselves short of jurors, too. So they dispatched constables to nearby shopping malls to round up additional prospects.
And in some states, jurors who don't heed the call to duty receive a second, hand-delivered summons - for their arrest.
These are drastic remedies for what have long been two major problems with the jury system in the United States: identifying citizens for jury duty and getting them into the courthouse. Over the past two decades, and especially since the mid-1980s, states and local jurisdictions across America have been taking steps to broaden jury pools and make it easier for citizens to perform an essential - but sometimes inconvenient - public service.
``I was in Russia, recently, advising officials who want to institute jury trials,'' says G. Thomas Munsterman, director for jury studies of the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va. `` `We need help on juries,' they told me. `So do we,' I replied.''
To remedy the first problem - locating potential jurors - many jurisdictions have broadened the lists they use beyond reliance on registered voters. Voter rolls exclude many citizens, such as younger people and some minority groups.
The most common way to expand jury lists is to add licensed drivers. A few states want to make their lists even more inclusive. A bill in the New Jersey legislature would incorporate taxpayers into the jury list. Legislation proposed in New York would add people on the welfare and unemployment rolls, although privacy issues have been raised.
Still, ``You'll never be able to reach everybody,'' says John Cannel, executive director of the New Jersey Law Revision Commission, which proposed a major reform of the state's jury laws. ``Some potentially useful lists are confidential, and combining various lists gets very complicated.''
Efforts to expand jury lists are motivated in part by a desire to spread the burden among as many people as possible. Equally important is the purpose to make juries as representative of the community as possible, especially by increasing minorities in jury pools. The Los Angeles riots that followed the verdict in the first Rodney King trial last year were fanned partly by anger that no blacks served on the jury that acquitted the white police officers who beat Mr. King.
The Standards Relating to Juror Use and Management adopted by the American Bar Association in 1982, updated last year, state: ``The jury source list should be representative and should be as inclusive of the adult population in the jurisdiction as is feasible.'' Twelve states have adopted the ABA standards, and many other states have copied parts of them.
After jurisdictions locate and summon jurors, the next hurdles are to get them to the courthouse and onto juries.
A substantial number of those called simply don't show up. A study of the New Jersey legal system conducted last year by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., found that 44 percent of those summoned for jury duty failed to report.
``If people knew how many of their fellow citizens are no-shows, I wonder if anyone would come in,'' Mr. Munsterman says.
Some jurisdictions periodically crack down on jury scofflaws, and a few well-publicized arrests or fines improve compliance rates for awhile. But such efforts are burdensome for underfunded court systems.
Most jurisdictions prefer the carrot to the stick. The most important trend in jury reform over the past 20 years has been efforts to make jury duty more convenient and less costly for both jurors and their employers.
The centerpiece of jury reform across the US has been the move toward one-day/one-trial (OD/OT) service periods. Under OD/OT, a juror's obligation expires after a single day, unless he or she is selected for a trial; and most jury trials (85 percent in Massachusetts) last less than three days. By contrast, many jurors must be available for two or three weeks.
OD/OT ``has made it more acceptable for people to fit jury duty into their busy schedules,'' says Richard Gayer, jury administrator for Connecticut, which completed a county-by-county transition to the system last year.
Florida adopted OD/OT statewide this summer, and the system is in place throughout Massachusetts, Colorado, and Hawaii; in parts of other states, including most counties in North Carolina and Pennsylvania; and in many cities, like Dallas and Houston. About 30 percent of the US population now lives in jurisdictions with OD/OT, according to the National Center for State Courts.
With shorter jury-service periods, states feel less pressure to excuse people from jury duty. Thirty-five states have eliminated or cut back occupational exemptions from jury duty. States have been able to reduce ``hardship'' exemptions, as well. ``We still grant hardship exemptions,'' Mr. Gayer says, ``but we do it on a case-by-case basis.''
Most employers appreciate OD/OT, experts say, because it is less disruptive of their work force. As a result, in a number of states employers have gone along with legislation requiring them to pay workers full wages for up to five days of jury duty. This lowers government jury fees.
Reforms like these are improving the jury system. But they aren't miracle cures. In most jurisdictions, Munsterman says, the lot of a jury commissioner still is to churn the list of names like crazy, trying to assemble enough warm bodies to fill the jurors' chairs for each day's trials.