Too few people are showing up for jury duty, causing court officials to delay criminal cases, costing thousands of dollars and wasting hours of court time, Cowlitz County Superior Court officials said last week.
Three cases were delayed in August — one of them for only a half day — after too many people ignored their jury summons and the jury pool didn’t contain 12 acceptable jurors, the officials said.
“It’s getting bad,” said Sue Anderson, the jury management clerk in the Cowlitz County Superior Court Clerk’s Office. “It’s been a problem for a while, but it seems to be getting worse.”
It is a misdemeanor to ignore a summons for jury duty, but few courts, including those in Cowlitz County, enforce the law, said Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning.
Why did so many decline to show up last month?
It may simply be a matter of summer vacations, Warning said. Or perhaps struggling families are ignoring the summons because they can’t afford to skip work. But Warning said he suspects the reason for dwindling jury pools runs deeper — too many people don’t feel a sense of responsibility to their community.
“I always tell the jurors who do come in that we do an excellent job of teaching people in school the notion of your civic rights. We do a very poor job, apparently, of teaching people civic responsibility. And they are not independent of each other,” Warning said. “Nobody wants to be on jury duty, but everybody wants a jury trial if it’s their issue.”
On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Marilyn Haan declared a mistrial in the felony harassment case of Jerome Moody because too few potential jurors showed up to serve. A new trial will be scheduled later.
Earlier this month, the assault trial of Christopher Poma was delayed for the same reason. That delay was especially costly because it was being presided over by retired Superior Court Judge Jim Stonier, whom the county must pay when he occasionally fills in for vacationing judges.
And last week, jury selection in the trial of accused meth dealer Sidney Potts stalled for a half day Tuesday because too few jurors showed up. Superior Court Judge Michael Evans asked court clerks to call the no-show jurors during the lunch hour and demand that they come to the courthouse. Evans said he personally called some of the people who ignored their summons.
“Most were apologetic and promised to respond next time,” Evans said. “A few had valid reasons for not being present but failed to communicate those reasons to the court and clerk.”
(Eventually enough jurors showed up for the Potts trial to proceed — until it was derailed by another snafu during jury selection. The case is scheduled to begin again with a new jury pool on Tuesday.)
By law, the county mails summons to randomly selected potential jurors. Court officials said they send out between 500 and 550 each month. Of those, they said, two-thirds are useless because the recipients have moved or they’re disqualified from serving because they have felony criminal records. Others petition the court to be excused for a host of reasons: financial hardship, a scheduled vacation, a child care problem, sickness. And then, of the remaining who are qualified to serve, about 15 percent “blow us off,” Warning said. Some mail their responses back with “colorful” suggestions that can’t be printed.
Each time a trial is delayed it jams up the already overloaded court system, pushing back other criminal and civil proceedings, Warning said. Warning estimated it costs $400 an hour to run a local courtroom, not counting the cost of public defenders and prosecutors. The cash-strapped county government can’t afford to waste that money, he said.
In the case of last week’s drug trial of Sidney Potts, only 43 of the 65 citizens who received jury summons showed up. That wasn’t enough for two reasons, several judges said: One, the case has been written about in detail in the press; and, two, so many people are affected by the area’s drug problems that many potential jurors were dismissed because of conflicts of interest and other concerns.
After court officials called those who had ignored their summons, another 14 showed up Tuesday afternoon, bringing the total in the pool to 57, which Evans considered acceptable.
Not everyone is shirking his or her civic duty. “I had two people call me last week and ask if they could serve,” Anderson said. And it’s not that court officials aren’t sympathetic to the plight of jurors.
“We give them ten bucks a day, which is an insult,” Warning said. “That number was set, I think, in 1951. The judges have tried to get it increased, but the Legislature doesn’t have any money. Ten bucks barely pays for your lunch.”
Anderson said many in the jury pool, quite understandably, would rather be at work. They “don’t want to miss that paycheck,” she said. “I know times are tough.”