ATLANTA — In Sugarland, Texas, a judge without a jury orders deputies to round up 160 citizens off the streets at random to sit in judgment.
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 Outdated juror lists, rundown jury rooms that feel like jails, and growing time pressures on Americans are mostly to blame, their research has found.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."
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.
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."
For those people who do serve as jurors, the vast majority come away with renewed confidence in the justice system, according to the Center for Jury Studies in Williamsburg, Va.
Yet another study showed that one-third of those who sat on lengthy death-penalty cases would "do anything to get out of doing it again," says Scott Sundby, a law professor and jury expert at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va.
Here in Fulton County, the stakes to find jurors are high in the death-penalty case of Brian Nichols, an African-American who stands accused of killing a white judge and three other people as he escaped the Fulton County Courthouse in March 2005. Lawyers have filed motions claiming that outdated addresses on the jury list have resulted in fewer minorities showing up at the courthouse for jury duty. Research shows that death-sentence convictions drop by 30 percent in black-on-white murder cases when at least one juror is a member of the minority group, according to Mr. Sundby.
"The word's out that you can sort of not show up if you don't want to," says Atlanta defense attorney Jack Martin, who tries cases at the Fulton County Courthouse. "It's a lousy way to run a jury system."
In an effort to handle the problem, Fulton County is in the process of updating its jury list.
Places which have been attentive to the growing number of absent jurors have seen an improvement in their rates. Massachusetts ran an educational campaign about the jury system and regularly pursues delinquent jurors. The state has cut its no-show rate in half since 1996, from 14 percent to 6 percent.
"People have profound misconceptions about what jury duty entails," says Ms. Wood. "Many people think they're not smart enough to be jurors or they think they need to understand the law and the legal system, when in fact all you need is to bring the impressions and values of the community and your personal experience to bear on who's telling the truth or not."
The Center for Jury Studies estimates that about a third of the courtrooms in the country now have a "one-day/one-trial" system where jurors no longer have to wait around for days to serve. Other fixes in the nation's courthouses include renovating jury areas to make them roomier and provide a more comfortable atmosphere. Some courts in Colorado have installed business centers so professionals can keep in touch with their colleagues while they wait.
Next spring, Douglas County, Neb., plans to introduce an e-Jury program using the Internet that aims to be more juror-friendly. It allows people to go online to request deferrals or provide reasons why they're unable to serve.
But some administrators say the main challenge for courts today is selling the idea of a unique experience.
"[Jury duty] is participatory democracy at its best," says Wood as she gives a sales pitch. "Come on down, we have plenty of seats and no waiting. Well, almost no waiting."