Every month, about 450 citizens of the District of Columbia serve on juries in the D.C. Superior Courts. For many, it is apt to be a time of simply waiting around as much as it is a time of weighing evidence. Some have spent the entire month of their service sitting in the crowded jury lounge without once being called to a courtroom.
To cut down on the frustration for jurors and to make the courts more efficient, Chief Judge Harold H. Green recently ordered changes in the jury system.
"It has often been said that, except for military service, jury service is the most direct governmental intrusion into the personal life of the average citizen," Judge Greene said in outlining the changes.
"Because the court is the instrument for imposing this burden, I believe it has an obligation to operate its jury program with efficiency and with due regard for the legitimate demands of those required to serve.
"Most of the changes have as their principal objective an improvement in jury service so as to promote the comfort, convenience, and other legitimate interests of the jurors. The remainder deal with jury management in relation to the efficiency of the court process and the administration of justice."
In a letter to City Councilman David A. Clarke in January, Greene outlined the following steps to take effect immediately:
The registration process for jurors will be speeded up so that jurors can begin their work immediately. In the past, it has generally taken one or two work days to collect information such as the addresses and regular employment of jurors. Now, those called for service are asked to provide this information on cards they receive when they are summoned to duty. The cards are to be returned to the court before service begins.
Defense and prosecution attorneys are entitled to know the occupations of jurors and often use this information as the basis for asking that panel members be disqualified from a particular case. Because of the former delay in gathering this information, some trials have been postponed for one or two days at the beginning of each jury term. Sometimes, jurors on the point of completing their month's service have been held over because the information on the new jurors was not at hand.
All those enrolled as jurors will be called to serve on a panel, a panel being the group from which the jurors for a particular trial are chosen. In the past, all panels have been summoned from all available jurors on a completely random basis, with the result that some have not been called at all. Now, no one will be called until all have had a chance to serve.
Most jurors not needed will be sent home at 2 p.m. In the past, all have had to wait in the jury lounge on the third floor of the Old Pension Building until 4:30 p.m. whether there was any prospect of their being called or not.
The Superior Court has taken over from the U.S. Marshal's Service the job of mailing out notices for jury service. Judge Greene says this is being done to ensure that every person called has at least four weeks notice of service. In the past, when the marshals sent the notices, some did not receive their summonses until a week prior to the date they were to report.
This spring, the total number of District residents liable for jury service will be expanded from about 309,000 to 476,000. The change will be effected by using Bureau of Motor Vehicle records as the basis for the jury pool instead of the voter registration lists, which is the present practice. The purpose is to reduce the chance of a person being called for jury duty several times while others never get called.
Judge Greene worked out these changes in response to questions raised by Councilman Clarke at budget hearings last year. Clarke was interested in making the burden of jury duty less onerous and more efficient and he says Judge Greene is moving in the direction he had in mind.
Budget constraints and the present law lie in the way of further changes, according to Greene.
One proposal is to reduce the number of "peremptory challenges" to prospective jurors called for a given case that attorneys for each side can make.
A "peremptory challenge" is one for which no reason need be given. An attorney simply says that he does not wish to have a particular juror sit on a case and that juror returns to the jury lounge.Judge Greene noted that the federal courts appear to be on the verge of reducing the number of "peremptory challenges" in criminal cases from ten to five. He said he has asked the D.C. Law Revision Commission to consider amending the D.C. Code to make it conform to the proposed federal rule.
Greene also said he has asked the Superior Court's Rules Committee to consider limiting the number of jurors in all civil cases to six. At present, there is an option to have civil cases tried by six-member, or 12-member juries.
There is the matter off the juror and his regular job. Judge Greene said he would ask the Law Revision Commission to recommend legislation that would require all private employers to pay the salaries of employees on juries less the $20 a day jurors receive from the court. Federal and D.C. workers get their full pay while on jury duty. Greene's proposal would bring private businesses in line with this practice.
Finally, Judge Greene said he would experiment with calling jurors for two or three weeks of service rather than a full month. But he said there were a number of problems that would have to be worked out before shorter jury terms could become permanent.Some of these are financial and some are administrative.
Greene said he would make a further report at the end of the year.