IF YOU ARE a resident of the District who has never served on a jury, you'll probably have that opportunity in the next two years. Jury service, however, won't be nearly as much of a burden as it has been. Important changes in the system are expected to come about as soon as legislation now making its uneventful way through Congress is passed. The legislation would create separate jury systems for the D.C. Superior Court and the U.S. District Court -- now jointly operated -- and enable the local court to adopt reforms.
Drawing on experience in Montgomery County, Baltimore and other local jurisdictions, the D.C. Superior Court tried out a pilot program on jury service last year. Court officials wanted to deal with two problems. Too many groups had been granted exemptions from service, so the same citizens were called over and over again. In addition, people were expected to come to the courthouse every day for two weeks, whether they were called for jury duty or not. Businesses, family lives and personal responsibilities had to take a back seat to the court's requirement that potential jurors be available in the building for relatively long periods of time.
Under the 1983-84 pilot program, certain jurors were called only for one day or one trial. If a citizen was chosen for service, he had to sit through one trial, but if he was not needed on the day he was called, his obligation was over. Over 70 percent of those who participated in the program liked the new procedure. So did judges, lawyers and litigants. Moreover, court officials learned that they could implement the new system with little additional cost and a small increase in staff.
Because each juror will serve for a shorter period, more citizens will have to be available for service. Present exemptions for government officials, teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, dentists and small-business men will have to be eliminated. In addition, payments to jurors who serve only a single day could be greatly reduced to reflect the dramatic reduction in the obligation. In Massachusetts, for example, employers must continue to pay a juror's salary for three days; only those who serve longer -- a small 5 percent -- are paid $50 a day by the state. The one-day, one- trial system planned for Superior Court will make jury service more equitable, less difficult and more efficient. It could turn this obligation of citizenship into an uncomplicated, instructive and valued service to the courts and the community.