Court tries to up jury numbers

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Dodging jury duty in Curry County is getting tougher.

Gone are the days when prospective jurors simply asked court clerks to be excused — and excusals are for three years. Now they must go before a judge.

District Judge David Reeb said about 75 people showed up recently for his first hearing for excusals. He said he excused between five and 10, seeking deferments for the others or allowing them to serve partial terms as an alternative to excusing them.

“It’s a difficult situation because you have people with legitimate reasons (for asking to be excused),” Reeb said. “You feel bad at times, but there’s really no choice in it now.”

Court officials are also issuing letters ordering residents who don’t respond to notices to appear for jury duty or be brought before a judge.

So far, letters seem to do the trick.

Court administrator Louis Moore said people can be found in contempt of court and face judicial punishment for shirking their duty.

“We’ve got to change public perception and get people to understand it’s part of their civic duty,” he said.

Of 1,500 jury notices sent out for the August term, almost one-third were returned to the court as undeliverable, clerk Shelly Burger said. Another 250 people did not respond to their notices.

And at the end of the day, Reeb said people have to understand it is one of the prices citizens pay for living in a democracy.

“I’m a firm believer that democracy makes very few demands on its citizens. You pay your taxes, maybe serve your country in a time of war and you serve jury duty,” Reeb said.

Court officials revamped the system in January, switching to four-month jury terms after nearly running out of jurors last year.

The court went through a pool of more than 10,000 jurors in six months after switching to a one-month term for jurors in January 2006.

Burger said the result was 300 potential jurors for the remainder of the year.

The shortened term, which ultimately backfired, was a move court officials made to make jury service easier on people.

“Six months ago we were to a crisis point,” Burger said. “Our database was depleted. We didn’t have the jurors.”

By the numbers

For the August-to-November jury term:

3
Years a juror cannot be recalled to serve if excused by the court.

5
Average number of trials judges schedule each day. Many trials do not go because defendants reach plea agreements right before trial.

250
Citizens did not respond to their notices

337
Jurors were excused

435
Notices that were undeliverable

1,500
Notices were sent to Curry County residents