Jury duty is a patriotic duty (column)
Special to the Daily
I am a trial judge in the Summit County District Court. I am passionate about the rights every citizen is guaranteed under our federal and state constitutions. I wholeheartedly believe in our system, especially the right to a trial by jury. The right to a trial by jury is one of our most important rights and is the only right that appears in both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
By having a jury decide guilt or innocence, we all are protected from governmental oppression or over-zealous prosecutors or potentially biased judges. In many nations, there is no right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. In America, we are blessed in that we have the right to a court-appointed lawyer, the right to remain silent, the right to open public jury trials and many other rights given to anyone charged with a crime.
However, along with every right comes a duty. The right to a jury trial creates a duty to be willing to serve on a jury. If citizens fail to fulfill their duty, that right has no true meaning and could possibly fade away.
As a former Denver district court judge, Christina Habas, once said, “Every day, citizens of every state receive a summons ordering them to appear for jury duty. Each day, I swear I can actually hear their groans. Each day as potential jurors arrive in my courthouse, their unhappiness hangs thick in the air. This attitude is perplexing to me. I teach visiting students that jurors hold the highest position of power in a courtroom. Jurors, not judges, determine whether the government has proven its charge against a defendant; jurors, not judges, determine whether a party seeking damages deserves an award. Yet, every week, I see people strive by any means necessary to be excused from exercising this authority.”
Sadly, my jury trial experiences are very similar to those of Judge Habas.
Imagine being charged with a crime for which you could receive a jail or prison sentence. You know you are not guilty. The local paper reports that you have been charged. Some of your acquaintances now look at you funny or avoid you altogether. You spend several thousand dollars on lawyer fees, and a trial is scheduled. Your lawyer subpoenas the five witnesses that support your innocence. You and the witnesses schedule time off work, and one of them even cancels a planned vacation, so he can be at the jury trial.
On the morning of trial, it is rescheduled because there are not enough jurors to hear your case. Although the court summoned 150 potential jurors, only 35 appeared. You are understandably upset, as are your lawyer and your witnesses. For months, you have had this charge hanging over your head. You have anxiously awaited trial because you want to clear your name. Now you, your witnesses and your lawyer have been inconvenienced and are frustrated. The prosecutor is also frustrated because he spent the same amount of energy as your lawyer did preparing for the trial. The prosecutor’s witnesses are also upset because they too took time off work to be in court. The jurors who did appear are also frustrated because they took time from their valuable schedules to fulfill their civic duty. The judge and her clerk are also not happy. The rescheduling of the trial causes docket congestion. Another case will now be delayed because your case had to be rescheduled. Justice is delayed — not only for you, but for the case that would have been tried on your rescheduled date.
On July 21, 2015, a jury trial in Summit County District Court did not take place as scheduled due to a lack of jurors. The court summons 150 and only 35 showed up. Two days later, on July 23, 2015, a jury trial in Summit County court again did not take place due to a lack of jurors. For that trial, the court summons 100 potential jurors, only 13 showed up. A travesty, to say the least.
In order to obtain a jury of twelve or six, it is necessary to summon many more than twelve or six. Each party in a case has the right to excuse an unlimited number of jurors “for cause” if it appears that juror could not be fair or impartial. In addition, both sides have the right to excuse three to five jurors each without stating any reason whatsoever. This procedure is designed to make the selection of the jury as random as possible. It creates a jury that is a cross-selection of the community — one that can decide the case fairly and impartially.
In addition to the frustration to the participants caused by a lack of jurors, there is also a cost to the taxpayers. It costs the state taxpayers approximately $1.00 to process, print and mail each juror summons. On average, the State spends about $900,000 sending out jury summonses every year.
We all need to do our part to see that taxpayer’s money is not wasted. I have instituted a policy of not accepting last minute plea bargains, unless unusual circumstances exist. I have done this in order to cut down on the number of juror summons’ that need to be sent out. Many of my fellow judges have instituted a similar practice in order to use tax revenues and court time efficiently. Our goal is to not schedule trials that will not take place. Likewise, we want the participants to be assured that if a trial is scheduled, it will take place as scheduled. In order to accomplish this, we need the cooperation of our citizens.
Understandably, there are legitimate reasons for summoned jurors to not serve. For instance, in cases of medical hardship, or a pre-arranged vacation, a call to the court can often lead to the potential juror being excused without the necessity of a court appearance. However, deciding not to show up without requesting a deferral of jury service is just not acceptable and causes great harm to all of us.
There are penalties available to the court if jurors fail to appear. A court can issue contempt citations and impose fines, community service or even jail sentences on summoned jurors who wrongfully fail to appear. The failure to appear is also punishable as a Class 3 misdemeanor which could lead to a fine of up to $750 and/or a jail sentence of up to 6 months. Of course, no judge wants to see either of these punishments inflicted. We prefer to educate citizens as to the necessity of jury service and obtain compliance voluntarily.
However, given the recent trend, I have elected to summon to court the potential jurors who recently failed to appear. I feel I have no choice but to set aside a full docket day to address each and every potential juror who failed to appear. Again, by doing so, I am not able to hear other cases on that day, and justice is once again delayed. I am, however, more than willing to spend this time in order to assure members of our community there will be sanctions if you do not appear when summoned for jury duty.
I write this in hopes that citizens of Summit County will become better educated as to the need for their services, and that they will appear when summoned for this important task.
Special thanks go to District Court Judge David L. Lass, former District Court Judge Christina Habas, and District Court Judge Wayne Patton whose prior articles were used in preparing this article. Karen Ann Romeo is a Summit County district court judge.
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