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US court challenge: How to corral 12 not-so-angry jurors

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 2006


In Sugarland, Texas, a judge without a jury orders deputies to round up 160 citizens off the streets at random to sit in judgment.

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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 Outdated juror lists, rundown jury rooms that feel like jails, and growing time pressures on Americans are mostly to blame, their research has found.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."

Problems of small jury pool

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.

Excuses: 'The dog ate my summons'

Some of the earliest jury statutes from colonial Virginia fined tobacco farmers who refused to leave their fields during planting season to render verdicts at the courthouse.

Today people find other ways to get out of serving. All court administrators have their favorite excuses: There was the businessman in Massachusetts who went missing the second day of a trial. He claimed to be sick in bed at home, but he was really in New Jersey at a business meeting. The irate judge fined the juror $2,000 and forced him to sit through the remainder of the trial in the courtroom in the audience, according to Pam Wood, the jury commissioner in Massachusetts.

People that are most likely not to show up are busy professionals and poor minorities who don't have consistent addresses.

"You wrestle with these people," says Doug Johnson, the court administrator in Douglas County, Neb., which handles all of Omaha's legal disputes. "Unless the sheriff comes and drags them in, you cut your losses. People come up with the strangest things, like the dog ate my summons."