What to do about jury no-shows?

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2004, 2.9 million jury summonses were mailed to Los Angeles County residents to try to drum up the ten thousand jurors needed daily, but the response rate was only 41 percent, authorities said.1

Los Angeles residents aren’t alone. According to a 2007 survey by the National Center for State Courts, 46 percent of people nationally don’t show up for jury duty.2 That average puts some communities to shame, including Manhattan (33 percent) and Boston (24 percent), according to the same report.

Reactions by the courts varies but has included the use of law enforcement. Tulare County in California saw a whopping rate of no-shows drop from 56 to 33 percent with the help of warning letters from the court and visits by sheriff’s deputies. The court enlisted the sheriff’s department in Lee County in North Carolina in an even more active role, as one woman experienced when she came out of a grocery store to find a deputy stuffing a summons through her car window. He then warned her, “Be there, or you’ll be in contempt.”3

Sometimes prospective jurors don’t show up because they ignore the summons, a mandate from the court to show up. Maybe they know the system is overloaded and the chances are slim of the courts catching up to them. But at the same time, it is not uncommon to hear jurors describe multiple jury experiences. By the time they reach middle age, these individuals have served four, five, and six times on juries. These numbers are for actual service on a jury, not just those additional times when the individuals may have answered a summons but were never actually selected to serve on a case. Gavin Jones, an emergency room nurse in Ventura County, California, received five summons in five years,4 yet there are many who, even by middle age, have never been summoned.

How can there be so many people with multiple jury experiences when others have none or have never even been summoned? Is there a crack in the system into which many of our identities have slipped, allowing some to fall out of view of those in charge of summoning potential jurors? Could an A-list of jurors exist, and could getting on that list mean you’re going to be called again and again? Is it like buying something online, where doing so assures you receive a flood of unsolicited online offers in the future? Why are we reticent to respond to junk mail? Because we fear the junk mail advertisers will then know our address is a good one and we are prone to responding, resulting in a mailbox full of junk mail every day thereafter. Do the courts act similarly? The facts suggest so.

I understand the court system is overburdened, but if we’re going to expand the jury pool, there must be a downside to ignoring a summons. I also understand the claim that manpower simply doesn’t exist to chase after these individuals. However, my memory of the Vietnam era draft years tells a somewhat different tale about the government’s ability to track down no-shows. As I recall, chasing after those men who tried to ignore their draft notices was done with great efficiency. I’m reasonably certain the same can be said of other time periods when the military draft was in effect. If we can enforce military draft notices, we can enforce summons to jury service.
When you consider the problem, how difficult can this be? It doesn’t require any detective work. We know who the people are. We know their names and addresses. In some venues, driver’s licenses are used in the jury summoning process, so we have that information as well.

Let’s also consider the social pressure factor. Who among us has not heard a friend or acquaintance brag about the clever way he or she escaped jury service? The social pressure factor is nearly zero. If, on the other hand, nearly everyone was required to serve and did so, the scofflaws would be isolated, even ostracized.

If money is the issue, make it financially worthwhile or even profitable. Levy a significant fine for not answering the summons. Let those fines help pay for the system, as parking fines help pay for law enforcement. This is not a new concept, and thankfully, it’s in force in some of our cities. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on August 24, 2000, that up to 55 percent of Philadelphians summoned for jury service simply ignore the summons. Having had enough of that, the City of Brotherly Love was dishing out bench warrants and $250 fines in Juror Scofflaw Court.5

Philadelphia is not alone in cracking down on scofflaws. The Los Angeles Times reported in August 2002 that LA was sending out ten thousand notices a week to those who repeatedly ignored their summons and imposed fines of up to $1,500 for the offense.6

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1 “Judge Gives Wake-Up Call,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2005.
2 “Getting Out of Jury Duty is a National Pastime,” CNN.com, July 27, 2007.
3 “Getting Out of Jury Duty is a National Pastime,” CNN.com, July 27, 2007.
4 Cynthia Overweg, “Long Wait Often Goes Along with Summons,” Ventura County Star, April 12, 2009.
5 Laura J. Bruch, “Ignoring Jury Duty is Now Costly,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 24, 2000, A1.
6 Jean Cuccione, “Jury Duty Scofflaws Get Hit in the Pocketbook,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2002, B2

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