Legally Speaking: Jury service – doing justice for Texas
As a trial lawyer who makes his living in the courtroom, I know and appreciate the sacrifice made by the people in the jury box.
For a pittance (jury compensation in Texas was raised a few years ago from $6 to $50 per day, with the higher figure kicking in on the second day of service), every week, people answer the summons and show up at their local courthouse ready to do their civic duty.
Once there, they patiently put up with civil or criminal lawyers asking them questions during jury selection and, if chosen, they can count on stints ranging from one day to months on end away from their jobs, their friends, and their families—all in the name of doing justice.
Jury duty is a sacrifice, one which some hesitate to make. The problem of “no shows” for jury duty has plagued many courts in Texas, to the point where a number of judges have had to resort to direct and sometimes drastic measures in order to combat the issue.
In April 2010, 19-year-old Houston college freshman Kelsey Gloston not only failed to show up for jury duty in federal court; she actually was rude and hung up on the court clerk who called and offered to pick her up.
That didn’t sit well with U.S. District Court Judge David Hittner. He ordered federal marshals to pick up Gloston and bring her to the courthouse in chains, so she could explain why he shouldn’t hold the pre-nursing student in contempt (ultimately, Gloston returned to be part of a 60-member panel of potential jurors in a health care fraud case).
Several Texas counties have begun adopting measures to address the problem of “no show” jurors. In 2005, El Paso County started a pilot project of summoning “scofflaw” jurors to court and imposing fines. In one year alone, the program netted the county $300,000 in revenue from fines.
In 2012, frustrated by the fact that only one out of every five Dallas County residents who were summoned to jury duty actually showed up, Dallas adopted a similar pilot program at the urging of Dallas Civil District Court Judge Martin Lowy.
Dallas takes a somewhat kinder, more gentle approach: jury duty no-shows are summoned to appear two afternoons a week before an associate judge, where they are chided for their prior failure to appear and given a chance to reschedule their jury service. Anywhere from 60 to 80 such wayward souls are given a chance to redeem themselves in Dallas County each week. Those summoned for a second chance like this but who again fail to appear can be fined $1,000 or even arrested.
For many people working lower-paying jobs, jury duty represents a financial sacrifice. Although employers are barred under Texas law from firing an employee for serving on a jury, the prospect of time away from work and the wages lost as a result is daunting enough, especially in a still-fragile economy.
But Texas lawmakers may soon pass legislation addressing these concerns. House Bill 433, authored by Republican State Rep. Debbie Riddle of the Spring/Tomball area, would provide an incentive for businesses to pay their employees for jury service. The bill allows businesses to be compensated through a reduction in the state margins franchise tax.
According to the proposed measure, an employer (or “taxable entity” in the legislation’s terms) would be entitled to a credit equal to 15 percent of the franchise tax due, so long as it pays at least one employee that worker’s regular salary or daily wage for each day or fraction of a day that the employee is absent from work “to attend jury selection or jury service.” The bill, if passed and signed into law, would take effect Jan. 1, 2014.
The proposed law could make a big difference, both in terms of encouraging jury service and in the trickle-down economic effect on counties struggling to meet the demand for jurors.
Look at Harris County, for example. Last year, the county mailed out over 400,000 notifications for jury service in an effort to fill the needs of 82 courts for jurors. Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel estimates that his office would save about $100,000 in taxes for every 5 percent increase in the jury pool.
Fewer jury notices would need to be mailed, he says, and with more people appearing for jury service, residents would be called to service less often. In addition, without a disproportionate share of those least impacted by time away (such as retirees or the unemployed), jury service would feature a more representative cross-section of society.
Yes, jury service is the cornerstone of our system of justice, and measures like HB 433 represent a long-overdue recognition of that importance. The State Bar of Texas’s Jury Service Committee (on which I’m proud to serve) is also doing its part to remind Texans of their civic duty.
The committee recently spearheaded the filming of public service announcements featuring justices of the Supreme Court of Texas (Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson stars in the English language version, while the Spanish language version features Justice Eva Guzman).
The PSAs, which spotlight how jury duty is vital to the administration of justice and integral to safeguarding constitutional rights, end with the tagline “Let’s do justice—for Texas.” They will air later this year on television and radio stations throughout the state.
Sure, jury duty is a responsibility, and some people try to either avoid it or rationalize that their other obligations somehow take precedence.
But how much confidence can you have in a system of justice when you fail to take accountability for it? How much faith would you place in the protection of your rights when you abdicate any role in safeguarding everyone else’s rights?
The next time that jury summons appears in your mailbox, answer the call of duty, and be a part of doing justice—for Texas.
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