While I was in Canada, my boss received a jury summons and one night, while waiting for the crew to shoot the next scene, we entered into a discussion about the best way for him to get out of it. Everyone there had advice. “Say you know someone involved with the case,” “Say you make crime movies and have enough experience to know who’s innocent or guilty right off the bat,” “Say you’re a Jehovah’s Witness,” “Say you hold a police officer’s testimony over anyone else’s.”
Everyone seemed to have a strategy for getting kicked off a jury as if it were an art form. I didn’t think much about it until I read an article today on CNN about the measures that counties have had to go to just to get enough jurors to try the cases that need to be tried.
In New York state, occupational exemptions to jury service have been eliminated, so doctors, lawyers, firefighters, police officers and even judges can no longer get out of jury duty.
In Washington, D.C., judges have summoned no-shows to court, where they must explain why they missed their date or face up to seven days in jail and a $300 fine.
In Tulare County, California, sheriffs go to the homes of no-shows and hand them orders to appear in court to explain themselves.
Around the country, some courts have tried to make jury service less burdensome by raising daily fees paid to jurors, limiting jury service to one day or one trial, and reimbursing jurors for parking costs.
In a survey conducted by the National Center for State Courts, it was suggested that only about 46 percent of people summoned for jury duty show up. Many of the rest did not show up or were excused or disqualified for a variety of reasons, including medical or financial hardship, or employment in a job exempt from jury service. Or, they never received their jury summons because it was mailed to an outdated address.
In Manhattan, about 33 percent of those summoned show up the day they are called. In Boston, about 24 percent of the people called for jury duty in 2006 completed their service before the end of the year — the juror shortage has become so acute that court officials are worried they may run out of jurors before the end of the year.
In Tulare County, California, where the trial of two brothers accused of murdering five people in a bar had to be delayed a day because not enough prospective jurors showed up, Superior Court Judge Lloyd Hicks said the warning letters and visits from the sheriff are making a difference. He said the no-show rate has declined from about 56 percent to 39 percent since the crackdown began about a year ago.
Now… I’m not a huge fan of jury duty. No one wants to receive a summons and be told that despite what they had planned, they have to change plans and show up for an unspecified amount of time to see whether or not they’ll be put on a jury– and if they are, they may have to put their lives on hold and show up for who knows how long at court. BUT… this is our system. And it’s a fairly good one compared to other countries.
We want all the things the system affords us — a fair trial by a jury of our peers, the ability to appeal, a defense attorney assigned to you despite whether or not you can pay for one. But yet, when it comes down to making sure this system works, we’re all much too busy to waste our time sitting on a jury because quite frankly, we’d just rather be doing something else.
There’s a problem with that mentality. We want the system to work, but we don’t want to put in the effort ourselves. We’d rather have someone else do it. Even though I think it’s pathetic that courts must go to such extremes to find a jury pool, I agree with cracking down on those who just blow it off.
If I could make one improvement to the system, it would be to allow people to schedule their own jury duty at the beginning of each calendar year so they could pick a time most convenient to them and have enough time to make preparations at work, or with childcare, etc. But until those reforms take place, we’re still obligated to perform our civic duties as jurors.
So next time you get a summons, show up and answer the questions truthfully. We’re all a part of this system, and that’s the way it should be.