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Why Every State Should Have a Jury Patriotism Act:
Bad Excuses and Broad Exemptions Are Hurting Our Jury Pools


Wednesday, Jul. 14, 2004

Our jury service system - plagued by overly broad and unfair professional and occupational exemptions, high no-show rates, and frequent abuse of hardship excuses-- is desperately in need of reform. Fortunately, new proposed legislation would go a long way toward that very reform.

At the state level, reform legislation has been developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This legislation, the Jury Patriotism Act, reduces opportunities to avoid jury service, while breaking down the barriers that make it more difficult and inconvenient to serve.

The Jury Patriotism Act has been increasingly accepted by the states. On July 7, Missouri Governor Bob Holden became the eighth governor to sign a version of ALEC's Jury Patriotism Act into law.

In this column, I will assess the current state of our jury service system and explain how the Jury Patriotism Act will change that system in the states that, like Missouri and others, enact versions of the Act.

The Problems That Currently Plague the Jury System

Some Americans relish the opportunity to serve on a jury. But many people open their mailboxes and groan when they find a jury summons. Jury service is often inconvenient and sometimes dull.

Yet jury service is also one of Americans' most important civic duties. The right to a trial by one's peers is part of our Constitution - in particular, the Sixth Amendment and the Seventh Amendment. And while Americans may not be enthusiastic about serving on juries, they still greatly value juries themselves. Indeed, according to the American Bar Association, 78 percent of Americans rate our jury system as the fairest method of determining guilt or innocence.

Jurors have some valid complaints with the system. For example, jurors rightly complain about the lack of flexibility in scheduling jury service and the lack of consideration for their time and expense.

In turn, those who administer the system, from court administrators to judges, have some valid complaints about jurors and the way they serve - or do not serve. Many jurors simply don't show up while others get out of serving by false claims of hardship

Across the country, courts have seen increases in no-show rates. Nationally, it has been reported that as many as two-thirds of the approximately 15 million Americans summoned each year fail to report for jury service. Some jurisdictions report as high as an eighty percent no-show rate.

And while some citizens fail to respond, others appear in court prepared with an excuse to avoid service. In many states, the statutory definition of hardship excuses is quite broad, and potential jurors do not have to substantiate their claims of hardship.

The result of no-shows and the overuse of hardship excuses has often been dire. In one state the jury pool was so severely depleted by no-shows and excusals, that a judge was forced to order sheriffs' deputies to round up talis (Latin for "bystander") jurors at Wal-Mart stores to serve as fill-ins. In other cases, lack of jurors caused trials to be delayed or rescheduled.

What the Jury Patriotism Act Does, In States That Enact It

The Jury Patriotism Act is structured - in several ways -- to ensure that unnecessary delays and cancellations like these no longer occur.

First, ALEC's Jury Patriotism Act addresses the no-show problem by increasing the penalty for ignoring service. It imposes higher fines and opens up the possibility of no-shows serving jail time or having to do community service.

Second, the Act simply prohibits professional and occupational exemptions. These exemptions are unfair and unnecessary. Lawyers, for example, make perfectly good - even sometimes excellent - jurors.

Third, Jury Patriotism Act strengthens the hardship standard to apply only to cases of extreme physical or financial hardship. And to prevent ambiguity, it offers specific definitions of each.

Respecting Jurors' and Small Business Owners' Financial Concerns

Note that in the Act, financial inconvenience is not included as a permissible excuse - and because it is the most common hardship excuse, its omission ought to make a big contribution toward re-filling our depleted jury pools.

Of course, financial inconvenience is a serious problem for those jurors who are not compensated by their employers. But the way to address that problem is not simply to dismiss those jurors from the jury pool. Financial issues don't mean a juror is unqualified to serve; it just means he or she ought to be compensated for doing so.

For this reason, the Jury Patriotism Act creates a "lengthy trial fund," financed by a small filing fee, and administered by the courts. Individuals who otherwise are unable to take time from work to serve without risking financial difficulty can apply to the fund to receive the compensation they would have been paid while working.

Most states prohibit employers from terminating or threatening to terminate an employee because of a call to jury service. The Act, however, goes one step farther and safeguards employees' vacation and sick leave -- ensuring that employees don't have to sacrifice their earned time off to fulfill their civic obligation.

The Jury Patriotism Act recognizes, too, that the inconveniences of jury service do not only affect those who are called to serve. For small business owners, having one employee called is a challenge - and having two called might mean that business has to shut down for the time of service. The Jury Patriotism Act protects small business owners by providing that no more than one employee of a small business can be called to serve at the same time.

The Act Respects Jurors' Time, Through a One Day/One Trial System

Moreover, the Act is respectfull of jurors' time, as well as their money.

Under the Jury Patriotism Act, potential jurors are allotted one automatic postponement, to allow them to schedule service around their personal schedule. In addition, because having citizens wait around a courthouse for days or weeks at a time is overly inconvenient, the Act implements a statewide one-day/one-trial system.

Under the system, a juror will serve at most no more than one day, or one trial. Showing up for one day - or finishing out a trial - thus frees the juror from appearing for the next two years.

The Only Way to Protect Jury Rights Is To Ensure Jury Service

Americans continue to regard the jury system as the fairest way of administering justice, yet the number of citizens willing to serve is declining. Efforts such as ALEC's Jury Patriotism Act will alleviate the burdens that deter individuals from serving while ensuring a large and representative jury pool.

Both justice and fairness will be advanced. The legislation will ensure a larger, more diverse, and more representative pool of potential jurors. At the same time, it will make certain that all citizens share the responsibility of service equally.

Kristin Armshaw is the Director of the Civil Justice Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is the nation's largest nonpartisan membership association of state legislators.

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