Jury-picking in the '80s: fewer exemptions, shorter service the trend

There was a day last October when Judge DAvid L. Cahoon got a chance to look at the courtroom from a different angle -- as juror rather than judge. He temporarily put aside his title as chief administrative judge of Maryland's Montgomery County to sit on the panel, hearing civil cases with fellow citizens from varying walks of life.

And he came away from the jury room "impressed with the conscientiousness of fellow jurors and their intense desire to be fair."

Although Judge Cahoon was not the first member of his profession to share in this experience, he is somewhat of a trailblazer in his state as efforts are pushed to improve the jury selection system.

At least 33 states, including Maryland, have moved in recent years to reduce, and in many instances eliminate, often long-standing occupational exemptions which kept teachers, physicians, lawyers, elected officials, judges, and in some places even lighthouse keepers from being called.

While there is no assurance that juries comprising a broader cross section of the community will necessarily lead to better verdicts, backers of the move feel it is fairer to all concerned. They say that juries now are made up of "a narrow segment of the population and not a true representation of one's peers."

Proponents of certain occupational exemptions, such as those traditionally granted for police officers, firefighters, doctors, teachers, and clergy argue that these citizens are "too busy." They contend that "considerable inconvenience and even hardship might be caused" by calling on these groups for jury duty.

For these reasons, despite a shrinking of the "need not serve" categories, those responsible for shaping jury lists tend to bypass those whom they feel might find it difficult to get the time needed. Not infrequently, too, those wishing to have jury duty have been allowed to serve.

Such practices, which fly in the face of the intent of randomly selected juries, are increasingly coming under attack across the nation.

Within recent months, two state supreme courts -- in Massachusetts and New Hampshire -- have ordered changes in the jury-selection process.

In New Hampshire, town selectmen were directed to choose jurors randomly, rather than discrimantely.

While stopping short of similar orders, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned a 1978 manslaugther conviction. In its appeal, the defense charged that the jury-selection system used resulted in a disproportionate number of older citizens on the panel that brought the guilty finding.

Instead of ordering a new selection system, as was done in neighboring New Hampshire, the Massachusetts justices called on state Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti to establish selection guidelines for counties throughout the commonwealth.

Specifically excluded is Middlesex County, where those called to serve are picked randomly by a computer from local voter registration lists.

A similar discretion-free selection system is used in Montgomery County, Md., and in a growing number of places across the country, often as part of other jury reforms -- including shorter length of service.

since 1972, at least 32 counties in 17 states have gone to a one-day or one-trial system. this system requires jurors to hear only one trial, or they serve for one day if the cases are short.

The latest swtichover occurred in Camden County, N.J., and within the next few months Hillsborough County, Fla., (Tampa) will move in a similar direction. Baltimore County, Md., and Fulton County, ga., (Atlanta) may soon follow suit.

"This is definitely the trend," says Thomas Munsterman of the nonprofit Virginia-based Center for Jury Studies.

Since most cases that go to trial last one day or less, he and other proponents of opening up jury duty to more people maintain that almost anyone, regardless of their occupation, could spare the time if expected to sit on only one case.

In Middlesex County, Mass., during the one-day or one-trial program, less than 5 percent of the cases extended beyond the third day, according to jury commissioner Joseph Romanow. Mr. Ramanow says that several judges and other who previously would have been ineligible have serve on panels under the random-selection system.

Despite a heavier trial load, juror compensation costs in the county in 1979 and 1980 combined were less than in 1978, the last year under the old system, when those called had to be around for a full month -- even when not sitting on cases.

Legislation to empower other Massachusetts counties to implement a one-day or one-trial system is pendng before state lawmakers.

While prospective jurors in most states are drawn from voter registration lists, some observers contend that this narrows the selection. Those who do not wish to be called simply avoid the possibility by never registering.

Some states are either shifting to driver registration lists or using them in conjunction with voter or taxpayer listings to find jurors.

Supporters of a system which chooses jurors from driver registration lists emphasize that 85 percent of the nation's adult population have driver s' licenses -- while only 72 percent are enrolled voters.

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