Madeline Byrne was making a quick trip to the grocery store to buy some cheese when a sheriff approached her car in the parking lot and slipped something through her open window.
Byrne didn’t get the cheese, but she did get a jury summons.
The 64-year-old woman was ordered to report for jury duty a little more than an hour later at the Lee County courthouse in Sanford, N.C. When Byrne protested, the sheriff told her: “Be there or you’ll be in contempt.”
“I wasn’t too happy,” said Byrne, one of at least a dozen people handed summonses at random in March outside a Food Lion and Wal-Mart.
Courts across the country have been going to extraordinary lengths in recent years to get people to report for jury duty — a cornerstone of democracy and a civic responsibility that many citizens would do almost anything to avoid.
Efforts to boost participation
Experts say the shirking of jury duty has been a problem as long as anyone can remember, and it is unclear whether it has gotten any worse in the past few decades. But according to one study, fewer than half of all Americans summoned report for duty, in part because of apathy and busy lifestyles.
“Everybody likes jury duty — just not this week,” said Patricia Lee Refo, a Phoenix lawyer who chaired the American Jury Project, an effort by the American Bar Association to increase jury participation.
Among other efforts around the country to boost participation:
- In Los Angeles County, officials have put ads promoting jury service on the court system’s mail trucks. They read: “Jury Service: You Be the Judge.”
- In New York state, occupational exemptions to jury service have been eliminated, so doctors, lawyers, firefighters, police officers and even judges can no longer get out of jury duty.
- In Florida, court officials use a poster of Harrison Ford, star of the movie “Presumed Innocent,” to encourage people to report for jury duty. The poster was part of a 2005 public service campaign developed by the ABA. “If a picture of Harrison Ford helps us be a more democratic society, then I’m all for it,” said Greg Cowan, a court official in Leon County, Fla.
- In Washington, D.C., judges have summoned no-shows to court, where they must explain why they missed their date or face up to seven days in jail and a $300 fine. In Tulare County, Calif., sheriffs go to the homes of no-shows and hand them orders to appear in court to explain themselves.
- Around the country, some courts have tried to make jury service less burdensome by raising daily fees paid to jurors, limiting jury service to one day or one trial, and reimbursing jurors for parking costs.
Many of the rest did not show up or were excused or disqualified for a variety of reasons, including medical or financial hardship, or employment in a job exempt from jury service. Or, they never received their jury summons because it was mailed to an outdated address.
Ann Blakely, the clerk of Superior Court in North Carolina’s Lee County, said sending out sheriffs to find jurors at random is done very rarely, and only when a judge is about to begin a case and there are not enough jurors.
“Not again in my lifetime, I hope,” she said. “We got a lot of complaints from people. You do not make friends like that.”
Some people struggle mightily to get out of jury duty. Earlier this month, a Cape Cod, Mass., judge reprimanded a potential juror and reported him to prosecutors after he tried to get out of jury service by saying he was “not a fan of homosexuals and most blacks” and was “frequently found to be a liar, too.”
Boston juror shortage
In Manhattan, about 33 percent of those summoned show up the day they are called — up from 23 percent in the mid-1990s, before widespread reforms were put in place, including the elimination of all occupational exemptions and the use of five different lists to pick potential jurors from, including voter registrations, licensed drivers, taxpayers, unemployment and aid recipients, said Anthony Manisero, statewide jury manager.
In Boston, about 24 percent of the people called for jury duty in 2006 completed their service before the end of the year — an improvement from less than 20 percent in the mid-1990s, before the city began updating its address lists.
Nevertheless, the juror shortage in Boston has become so acute that court officials are worried they may run out of jurors before the end of the year.
An increase in the number of homicides in Boston and the use of special grand juries to investigate violent crimes have eaten into the prospective juror list.
The city also has a large number of immigrants, who are exempt from jury duty, and college students, who move so frequently that their summonses are often sent back as undeliverable.
'A common problem'
The problem appears to be worse in urban courts, where the population is more transient and address lists can quickly become outdated. But rural and suburban areas also have problems with reluctant jurors.
In Tulare County, Calif., where the trial of two brothers accused of murdering five people in a bar had to be delayed a day because not enough prospective jurors showed up, Superior Court Judge Lloyd Hicks said the warning letters and visits from the sheriff are making a difference. He said the no-show rate has declined from about 56 percent to 39 percent since the crackdown began about a year ago.
“It had been a common problem because people were aware that nothing would happen to them,” Hicks said. Now, people are calling in to schedule their jury service after watching their neighbors get a visit from the sheriff, he said.