Taking cronyism out of jury-picking

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Say a lingering farewell to "professional" jurors, those people whose friends at the courthouse favored them with frequent calls for jury duty. They are already gone from most of the nation's federal district courts, where prospective jurors are selected by computers instead of by cronies.

And, increasingly, they are passing from the scene in county courthouses where clerks, if not employing computers, are using random selection of jurors by taking every 10th or 12th name from voter registration or tax lists.

"I couldn't pick you for jury duty if I wanted to," says W. Farley Powers Jr. , clerk of US District Court for Eastern Virginia. Mr. Powers's court was among the first in the nation to turn to computer selection of jurors.

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Now, he points out, 70 of the nation's 96 federal district courts call upon computers -- which are often hundreds of miles away -- to amke up lists of jurors and, in some instances, issue summonses and pay vouchers.

The administrative office of US courts has been "emphasizing" computerized selection, Powers says, because it's faster, cheaper, and "a less personal way of selecting juries."

Before his court turned to computers, Powers hired four college students to pore over voter registration books, memberships of clubs and civic leagues, and telephone directories to compile a list of prospective jurors.

"The computer does in three days what it took the college kids and my staff three months to do. By and large, it's a beautiful system," says Powers.

Every two years he buys from the secretary of the State Electoral Board in richmond a computer tape with the names of every registered voter in Eastern Virginia.

A General Services Administration (GSA) computer in Washington, D.C., is programmed to select at random the names of prospective jurors who then are sent questionnaires to determine their eligibility to serve.

About half of the prospective jurors in Eastern Virginia qualify to serve for a four-month period; the others are exempted because of occupation, address change, physical condition, or other circumstances.

When there is a need for jurors, Powers's chief deputy, Ray Old, goes to Washington and orders the GSA computer to print up a list of qualified jurors who will then be summoned to court.

Under this system, says Powers, the earliest a person can be called again for jury duty is two years.

Some states, according to Chester H. Mount at the Center for Jury Studies in McLean, Va., are going the federal courts one better by sending out computerized qualification questionnaires and summonses at the same time.

"If the person is not qualified, he doesn't have to come to court," says Mr. Mount.And in at least one state court -- in Montgomery County, Md. -- jurors serve only for one day or for one trial and get paid in cash at the end of the day.

State courts are "getting away from the country club list and going to more recognized lists like the voter registration list," adds Mount. "If they're not using computers, they're using random selection."

In a few states, however, clerks of courts or jury commissioners still use their discretion at how jurors are picked, and in these areas the "professional" juror can still be found.

Indeed, not too many years ago, Powers says, his father was called regularly to serve on state court grand juries in Norfolk because he was a prominent citizen and well-known at the courthouse.

But such practices are open to attack, especially by civil rights lawyers, because there is not a good mix of races and people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, says Powers.

Computerization, too, is making curiosity pieces of the little wooden boxes and barrels where the names of prospective jurors were placed to be stirred around and ceremoniously drawn in open court.

Powers has two in his office in the Norfolk Division of the US District Court. He says he plans to keep them for a small museum he is planning for the courthouse.

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