New selection system means jury duty is for everyone -- even judges

Massachusetts never had all that many lighthouse keepers, but the number of them that ever served on juries was even fewer. For decades, if not since the commonwealth's founding, lighthouse keepers were among thousands of Bay Staters who, by reason of profession, specifically were excluded from jury duty.

But times are changing, and over the next 15 years almost every adult resident of Massachusetts, regardless of his or her occupation, may sit on a court panel at least once.

It is all part of the ''one day or one trial'' arrangement under which nearly 400,000 Middlesex County residents have answered the call during the past five years.

While some of the people randomly drawn by computer (from the latest annual police listings of residents) were less than happy, they had no choice but to report. And clearly that is as it should be. For too long, juries have been restricted to a narrow segment of the population, dominated by middle-aged, male , blue-collar or clerical workers.

To what extent the quality of jury decisionmaking has improved in Middlesex County since January 1979, when virtually all automatic exemptions ended, may never be known. There is little doubt, however, that it is a fairer arrangement for all concerned.

Both sides in civil and criminal trials are assured by the United States Constitution of having their cases heard by a panel of their peers. Now, that panel is apt to be more representative of a cross section of society than had been possible under the traditional setup with its many statutory exclusions and ways of dodging service. Equally important, it provides a valuable learning experience for thousands of people who might otherwise never get into a courtroom.

A greatly expanded pool of potential jurors would mean shorter terms of service - usually one day. State lawmakers, in their wisdom, long since have recognized this, first in providing for the Middlesex County experiment and more recently in clearing the way for the ''one day or one trial'' system to spread throughout the commonwealth during the next few years. The phase-in, entrusted as it should to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, will begin this January in Suffolk and Essex counties and January 1985 in Hampden and Worcester counties.

The first visible reminders of the expansion should be arriving in the mailboxes of hundreds of residents of Boston, Chelsea, Revere, Winthrop, and communities along the North Shore within the next few days.

No longer will jury-summons recipients in these areas be able to enlist the help of a friendly politician or somebody with special connections. Nor can they count on the sympathetic ear of a judge to avoid jury service, as many residents of Middlesex County already can attest.

Everyone whose name is computer-drawn must show up, ready to sit on the day called or on an agreed-upon later date. The only exceptions are physical incapacitation or conviction of a felony within the previous seven years.

Persons older than 70, however, can be excused if they do not wish to sit. But this is not an automatic exclusion. In Middlesex, many senior citizens, some in their 90s, have served on juries. So, too, have scores of teachers, members of the clergy, nurses, police officers, firefighters, lawyers, physicians, ex-convicts, some state legislators, and even a few judges.

Under the traditional setup, the lists with names of prospective jurors are compiled (none-to-democratically) by municipal officials. But even if the process were free from special favors and political influence, the system has other glaring shortcomings.

The most visible of these is the large amounts of time jurors usually waste while waiting to be called to sit on a case. This is particularly unbearable for many, since those summoned are required to be on hand all day, five days a week, for an entire month.

Clearly many people, because of family, business, or professional responsibilities, find it impossible to devote that much time to being a potential juror. But if they were at the courthouse for no more than a day and in most instances less than three days, which is the longest most trials run, they could hardly view that service as a hardship. About 95 percent of the cases take less time to settle.

The success of the Middlesex County program is a tribute to the strong measure of support from within the state judiciary, including former chief justice of the Superior Court, Walter H. McLaughlin. Without his leadership and that of his former aide, attorney Joseph Romanow, it is questionable whether state lawmakers would have gone beyond polite consideration of the jury revision , even on an experimental basis in a single county.

Mr. Romanow, the logical choice of the state Supreme Court for jury commissioner, worked for three years to put the new arrangement into practice. Romanow left this post this year to pursue his law practice elsewhere.

As desirable as it may be to expand the ''one day or one trial'' system to all corners of the commonwealth, this is a big step. Therefore, bringing just a couple of counties a year into the system makes good sense. To move too rapidly could jeopardize the efficiency of the setup and undermine public confidence.

At least some early critics of the new jury selection process, although conspicuously quiet in recent years, would like nothing better than to have it break down. The Massachusetts Supreme Court is not about to let that happen, least of all Chief Justice Edward F. Hennessey, a strong booster of the program and of short jury terms.

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