THE DISTRICT of Columbia makes it too easy to avoid jury duty. The present system requires a two-week assignment, but, at the same time, provides exemptions to all sorts of people. Firemen, policemen, doctors, nurses, teachers, ministers, self-employed people -- the list goes on and on -- are automatically excused on request. That shifts the responsibility disproportionately to people who are unemployed -- nearly one out of every five jurors -- or retired. The jury system works best when juries are fully representative of the communities they serve. In that sense, the city's practice is slightly unfair to the people whose cases are being tried.
Perhaps it's also unfair, in another sense, to the jurors. They face the prospect of sitting in the courthouse day after day without knowing when, or whether, they will be called. A juror typically spends a third of those two weeks in a lounge playing cards, or reading, or looking out the window.
There's a better way to organize jury duty. The D.C. Superior Court has been experimenting with a procedure by which a juror is called for only one day or, if it lasts longer than one day, for one trial. But under that system all the automatic exemptions would be dropped. Several other jurisdictions around the country, notably including Montgomery County, have tried it and found that it works well.
Not surprisingly, the Superior Court discovered in its experiment that citizen participation increases under the one-day-or-one-trial system. The experiment has been a success, and it clearly deserves to be expanded. To be sure, there would be a certain increase in the administrative load. If the one-day rule were to be imposed generally, the number of jurors called each year would rise from about 8,000 to 41,500. But that's the kind of paper work that computers are good at. The courts here have been improving their administrative capacities substantially in recent years, and they are quite capable of running a one-day jury system. Its advantages to the court system and to the public in providing a more accurate representation of the city's people are worth pursuing. It would be a significant reform.