District residents who get called to jury duty may expect their two-week stint to hold fascinating hours of listening to evidence, sifting through clues and being engaged with oratorical elegance of battling prosecutors and defense attorneys.
What they more often find is hours and hours of boredom, waiting and sitting day after day. They may spend their two weeks reading a book, sleeping or gazing out the window without ever beingselected to sit on a jury.
But Congress now is considering legislation that would enable the D.C. Superior Court to change this system, to bring in a broader pool of jurors for less time. Under the proposed system, jurors would serve only one day unless they are chosen to serve on a jury, in which case they would serve the length of one trial.
The legislation, approved last week by the House District subcommittee on judiciary and education, would create a separate jury system for D.C. Superior Court, which already has said it plans to use the "one-day, one-trial" plan if such a system is approved.
Now there is a single jury system that calls pools of citizens for jury service in both Superior Court and U.S. District Court, with federal court officials determining how that system works. Citizens now, must take off from work or their household chores to appear in court each day for two weeks whether they actually serve on a jury or not.
The bill to change the local jury service system is supported by a broad range of local and federal officials, including the U.S. District Court, the D.C. courts, Mayor Marion Barry, City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, and U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova.
DiGenova, a Reagan administration appointee, called the proposed system "very sound" and said there should not be a problem getting the legislation through the Republican-controlled Senate.
"The system would encourage panels made up of more alert, interested jurors than under the present system," said D.C. Corporation Counsel Inez Smith Reid, speaking for Barry at a hearing last week. "Jury service would be viewed as potentially challenging and interesting, not as a burden characterized by long, empty hours and hence excruciating boredom."
The House District Committee is expected to approve the bill in mid-July and the full House by the end of this month, according to committee staff.
The legislation also would eliminate a number of those exempted from service under the current system, such as doctors, police officers or persons over the age of 70. Instead, it would allow for a deferral of jury service where the person can show undue hardship or public necessity. A master list of jurors would be established and would include all persons registered to vote or who volunteer to serve.
Samuel F. Harahan, executive director of the Council for Court Excellence, said that now about 8,000 persons a year go in for their two weeks of jury duty, but that under the new plan about 40,000 would serve. This puts more of a burden on the court because it must orient more new jurors, he said, but the one-day, one-trial approach has been used successfully in Montgomery County, Baltimore, Detroit and Anchorage, according to the council. The group is a private organization seeking to improve court administration.
The shorter length of jury service combined with elimination of certain exemptions would mean less inconvenience for those serving and would improve the quality of jurors, court and city officials have argued.
Harahan said the current system has resulted in horror stories such as the time three years ago on the day after Christmas when not a single judge was available to try cases in D.C. Superior Court -- but 620 jurors were.
The Greater Washington Board of Trade, supporting the House legislation, said the one-day, one-trial approach would reduce employe time away from work.
"By distributing this vital civic responsibility across the entire community, and shortening the term to one trial or one day, the adverse impact on individual citizens and businesses will be eliminated," said Duane B. Adams for the Board of Trade.
The Superior Court instituted a test program of the one-day, one-trial approach in 1983 and 1984 and "was favorably impressed with the feasibility and desirability of this approach," said Larry P. Polansky, executive officer of the D.C. Courts.