"HOW CAN I get out of this?" is the first thought that runs through the mind of a lot of District citizens who receive a jury notice. The prospect of rearranging one's life and job for two weeks is universally unappealing--especially if it turns out that the time is spent sitting around waiting to be chosen but being passed over. Jury service is a civic duty, but to many it's a pain in the neck and for some it's a virtual impossibility, truly a personal trial by jury.
It's also an obligation rather selectively imposed. In the District of Columbia, anyone who is registered to vote or has a driver's license may be called for jury duty. But if you're a doctor or nurse, practicing lawyer, teacher or clergyman, you can apply for an exemption. So can people over 70, those caring for children or disabled persons and self- employed businessmen. Members of the armed forces, police and firefighters, elected and appointed public officials are automatically excused. No one is required to serve more than once in a four-year period.
What can be done to make this public service less difficult for those who do serve, so that exemptions can be limited and the burden shared by more citizens? The Superior Court is about to try a new system that is already being used successfully in Montgomery County and some other jurisdictions around the country. Jurors will be called for one day or one trial. If they are not chosen to serve on a panel during the first day, they are excused. If they are asked to sit as jurors, it will be for one trial only. For a six- month period beginning next month a portion of D.C. jurors will participate in this experiment, but if it is successful, amendments to existing statutes will be sought so that the one-day/one-trial system can be used exclusively. In addition to making jury service easier and making it possible for more citizens to serve, the new system may save money in the long run. The District needs 8,000 jurors a year and pays $30 a day plus bus fare to each one. If the service were required only one day every few years, though, perhaps employers could be asked to pick up the tab. In Massachusetts, which uses the system state-wide, employers must cover the first three days of service. For those who serve longer--only 5 percent of those called--the state pays $50 a day. But even without this saving, the one-day/one-trial experiment offers dividends for jurors. It could turn an unwelcome obligation into a brief, useful and therefore valued service.