TRIAL BY jury is a uniquely important part of U.S. democracy. So strongly did the Founding Fathers feel about the right to be tried by one’s peers that the provision is twice included in the Bill of Rights. That’s why the District’s long-standing problems in getting people to serve on these critical panels are concerning, and why a study group’s report on how to improve the process should be taken to heart.
Only 1 in 5 people summoned for jury duty in D.C. show up for local trials, far fewer than the national average. At fault, concluded a special committee of the Council for Court Excellence , which studied the matter for a year, are the processes used to identify and contact eligible jurors, along with courthouse treatment that unnecessarily inconveniences those who serve and makes them feel unappreciated.
The group, composed of lawyers, judges and former jurors, made recommendations on improving how jury pools are created and summoned and how jurors are treated. Many are no-brainers. That includes improving the accuracy of juror source lists; augmenting the initial jury summons to include information about the term of service, payment and other key details; implementing a call-in/online check-in system to decrease wait time; and thanking jurors for their service. Some suggestions, such as increasing juror compensation, would require additional resources. Others, notably getting the D.C. Superior Court to ease its 10-year restriction on people with felony convictions being called to serve, are more controversial and should be subjected to further study and debate.
Implementation of the recommendations would require action on multiple fronts. Some would need approval by the D.C. Council, and others would require a change in court rules or procedures or judges’ behavior. We hope that all parties involved take seriously the report’s conclusions about the need to upgrade and improve the system. This thoughtful report must not be consigned to the shelves and instead should provide the basis for needed action.