Thu, Aug 02, 2007 - Page 7 News List

US courts go the extra mile to boost jury participation

AP , BOSTON

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 did not 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, North Carolina. 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.

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 has 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.

* In Washington, 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 US$300 fine. In Tulare County, California, sheriffs go to the homes of no-shows and hand them orders to appear in court to explain themselves.

Nationally, about 46 percent of people summoned for jury duty show up, a survey of jury improvement efforts conducted by the National Center for State Courts and published in April showed. It was the organization's first such survey.

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.

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