Foon Rhee

A mixed verdict on jury duty

Sacramento County’s courthouse is outdated and doesn’t make jury service any more pleasant.
Sacramento County’s courthouse is outdated and doesn’t make jury service any more pleasant.

Jury service is called a civic duty for a reason.

You get drafted. It’s barely paid. And just the waiting – and waiting and waiting – to see if you’re even needed can be a grind, as I was reminded one day recently.

Sacramento County’s jury commissioner tries to make it as painless as possible, despite the depressing courthouse that officials want to replace. But the chairs in the jury assembly room, like the ones they used to have in airports, aren’t the most comfortable. The movies shown on the Blu-ray are old. There’s a quiet room if you remember to bring a book, but then a woman in the other room will prattle on about her philosophy of life, loudly.

During my nearly eight hours (including a two-hour lunch break), I got so bored that I wanted to be called into a courtroom, almost. If it was a criminal case, I was all ready to say that while I respect police, I also know they make mistakes since I’ve written about wrongful convictions. That probably would have gotten me kicked off.

Unless you’re a “Law and Order” or “Perry Mason” junkie, you probably aren’t hoping to get picked for a jury. I expect most people are keeping fingers crossed for plea deals or civil settlements so there’s no trial. On my jury day, each time names were called to report to a courtroom, I could feel the tension among the other potential jurors. When those of us still waiting at day’s end were told we had completed our service and were free to go, some cheered and clapped.

Personally, I was relieved, but I also felt a twinge of guilt. After all, trial by jury is fundamental to our system of justice – and it doesn’t work if too many of us shirk that responsibility.

California’s jury situation is much better than during the mid-1990s, when some counties had serious shortages. The “three-strikes” sentencing law had increased the number of trials, and many Californians were reluctant to serve after seeing juries sequestered for months, most prominently the one in the O.J. Simpson case.

In 1995, the state Judicial Council created a blue-ribbon commission on jury improvements. Four years later, that led to a “one day, one trial” system statewide. It means if you’re not chosen for a jury during the day you’re summoned to the courthouse, you’re done for at least 12 months. Also, jury pay was raised for the first time since 1957, and juror information was standardized and made more understandable.

Potential jurors are pulled from DMV and voter registration lists. (Helpful hint: Make sure your name is listed exactly the same in DMV and voter records. Otherwise, you can get summoned from both lists.)

Now, about half of potential jurors statewide can’t serve because they’re disqualified or excused. In 2012-13, the latest complete numbers available from the Judicial Council, out of more than 8.2 million potential jurors statewide, about 3.6 million were actually available for duty – a “yield” of 43 percent.

But the percentage of available jurors ranged widely across the state – from 87 percent in Colusa County and 84 percent in El Dorado to only 5 percent in Nevada County and 7 percent in Del Norte. Among the most populous counties, the available juror numbers were 52 percent in San Francisco and 49 percent in Orange, but only 22 percent in Los Angeles and 27 percent in San Diego.

Sacramento County was right at the statewide average, 43 percent. In 2015, of nearly 302,000 summonses mailed, about 130,000 jurors served and about 114,000 were disqualified or excused, according to the county courts.

You’re disqualified if you’re not a citizen, or have a felony conviction or if you can’t comprehend English well enough. You’re also ineligible if you’re a law enforcement officer, though curiously you’re not automatically disqualified if you’re a prison guard.

You can get excused from jury duty if you have a serious medical condition, if you have no reasonable way to travel to the courthouse, or if you’re the sole source of income for your family and you would lose all your income if you serve.

That’s a big concern because pay for jurors – starting with the second day of service – is still a paltry $15 a day, the same since 2000.

State law doesn’t require employers to pay workers on jury duty, though they can’t fire or demote you while serving. Government employees who get full pay while on jury duty must turn down the per diem. Jurors also get 34 cents per mile for the one-way trip to the courthouse. Some counties, including Sacramento, offer free public transit tickets and free parking.

Nationally, the situation has also improved thanks to reforms suggested by the American Bar Association and other groups, such as less frequent summonses and fewer exemptions and excuses. There are also calls for making jury service less burdensome, such as requiring larger employers to pay jurors their regular salary for the first 10 days of service and creating a fund for extra compensation for especially long trials.

California isn’t considering any of those improvements. That’s too bad, especially since difficulty finding jurors comes up as a reason to change how trials are conducted.

For instance, it was one justification for a controversial proposal that the Legislature approved and Gov. Jerry Brown signed last month. Now, defense lawyers can dismiss as many as 10 potential jurors without showing cause. Under the budget trailer bill, these peremptory challenges will be reduced to six when the charge carries a maximum punishment of one year or less in prison.

The change takes effect Jan. 1. Before it ends in four years, the Judicial Council is to complete a study on the impact. Court officials hope that the new system will reduce the number of people summoned to jury duty and speed up jury selection.

I’m all for streamlining the courts, but I get worried when public defenders and some prosecutors warn that this proposal could lead to more biased juries, especially when the defendants are black or brown.

Particularly with everything going on these days, fair justice has to be protected at all costs. I’d even be willing to serve on a jury.